When artist Nathan M. McTague decided to put on a production of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, he figured he'd make it a post-war fantasy like Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: in a theater of luscious red curtains and junked antiquities. He wanted to decorate the stage with televisions piled on their sides and flickering with images of the performance. He wanted to reference American towns, update it all for modern audiences.
But the Samuel Beckett estate is a hard nut to crack: You don't do Godot that way. There are rules. You don't change the lines or the genders, and you're not allowed to add words. It's even written into the script that the actors wear bowlers. The estate has shut down numerous productions of the classic play. The most recent incident: Waiting for Godot set in post-Katrina New Orleans came under fire by the estate in 2011.
"I didn't know about the Beckett estate before we started this process," McTague says. "I was taking this play like any old play. You get it, you read it and you do what you want with it—like Shakespeare. There's no latitude like that in any Beckett play. If you want to do anything different, you have to approach the Beckett estate and work with them to make that adaptation, down to the letter."
When he found out none of his changes would be possible, McTague almost decided not to do it. But McTague had been waiting to do Waiting for Godot for a long time. The first time he considered it was nine years ago. He had little theater experience then, though he did have actor friends who also liked the idea of putting on Godot.
"I continued to keep it in the back of my mind as something I was interested in doing," he says. "I was intrigued, but I just didn't think of it as something that I was ready yet to do." McTague began performing in plays with the Montana Actors' Theatre, a professional company with a Missoula branch. He talked with Grant Olson, the artistic director, about producing Godot as part of the company's season. Olson wanted to do it, McTague says, but they had two other Beckett plays on the docket: Play and Krapp's Last Tape.
"They didn't think they could market another Beckett play, so it got shelved," says McTague.
McTague gave it another shot the next year, but he was out of town when the season was finalized and it didn't make the cut. Finally, MAT's Missoula chapter finished its season early and went on an indefinite hiatus. That left McTague waiting again. Last year, he decided to wait no longer and, for Beckett's 106th birthday this weekend, his Missoula Actors' Guild production hits the Crystal Theatre.
Waiting for Godot is an absurdist play about two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. They are not sure what he looks like. To pass the time they eat, sleep, converse, play games and contemplate suicide. It's often performed vaudeville-style—Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart have all clowned around in the roles. Other performers have played it more naturalistically, taking it into the serious realm, which Beckett dismissed as misinterpretation.
McTague, who plays Vladimir, cast actor Jeff Medley as Estragon. While volunteering for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February, the two practiced their lines together and found out just how challenging the play really is.
"One thing that Beckett did beautifully is he uses certain lines as echoes," says McTague. "And so there's places where I deliver the same line day one and day two, or the same line throughout day one and day two. There are places where we trade lines. We would be walking around together doing lines back and forth, and we'd find ourselves in a loop. We'd realize 'Oh no! We already did that part! How do we move forward?'"
The challenge of doing the roles—which also include three other characters, Pozzo, Lucky and a boyis one reason actors turn to this play despite its estate constraints. For audiences, the appeal is in the humor and the philosophical components. It's an impenetrable play because it never admits to meaning.
"Beckett set out a lot of points of meaning, what you might call the structure of an argument," says McTague. "There's some stuff about religion and there's some stuff about relationships, there's some stuff about waiting, there's some stuff about the human condition, there's some stuff about suffering ... What people tend to do is say, 'The meaning is all there and it's this.' What has actually happened is they've taken all those dots and made their own dot-to-dot out of it and that's their version. Somebody else is going to do a totally different version of those same dots. And the achievement that constitutes in the theater world is unparalleled."
As for who this Godot person is, everyone tries to say he's God or Jesus or capitalism or socialism, says McTague, but Beckett denied all those interpretations.
"In the end, it really doesn't matter," says McTague. "Beckett was absolutely unclear about who he is. Outside of the play, he can represent anything we're all waiting for. Inside of the play, he's just a guy who's supposed to arrive. There's at least some evidence that he exists and they really are intending to meet him. But who he is or what he could give them, there isn't enough information to say."
McTague's Waiting for Godot is by the book, with a few exceptions. He changed monetary units from francs to dollars (a common change not challenged by the estate), and some lines and blocking have been rearranged. He hints that Vladimir has a Southern air and Estragon a Midwestern one. It's a naturalistic take, not slapstick, but it still ended up on the comedic end.
McTague says he hopes it will feel like a brand new take.
"Because it's being held in this frozen state, it's losing appeal to modern audiences," he says. "The bowler doesn't mean anything to us. Cackon country doesn't mean anything to us. Bishop Berkeley doesn't mean anything to us. So I think I may still, someday, try to work with the Beckett estate to do an adaptation. I don't know what that would involve. I'd like to do a version of Godot meets Dude, Where's My Car? You know, some stoner guys, like, 'We're waiting. Where is he? I don't know.'"
Waiting for Godot opens at the Crystal Theatre Thur., April 12, at 8 PM for $12/$10 advance. The Fri., April 13, show is the grand opening gala celebration, beginning with live music at 7 PM and continuing with the show at 8 PM for $13/$10 advance. Godot continues Sat., April 14, and Wed., April 18, Sat., April 21, at 8 PM nightly and 2 PM matinees Sat. for $12/$10 advance. Tickets at Butterfly Herbs and Shakespeare & Co.