The first line is: "Nothing to be done."
At the end, one of the tramps asks: "Well? Shall we go?" The other replies: "Yes, let's go." But the two figures on the barren stage do not move.
The one certainty about Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" is the play's uncertainties. Last night the Kennedy Center Acting Company opened "Godot" at the Terrace Theater, 25 years after its American premiere, with a credible, if not inspired, production.
This story of two tramps, who wait under a tree for someone named Godot, who never appears, remain strangely compelling on stage. And its elusive meanings still must be decided by each viewer for himself.
The impact of "Godot" depends a great deal on direction and acting. For the Acting Company production, Alan Schneider, who staged the first American "Godot" in Miami in 1956, gives center stage to Vladimir, the more intellectual of the hapless pair, rather than the lustier Estragon.
Bert Lahr played the first Estragon as a top-banana clown, and it was a disagreement with him over the role that made Schneider leave the show before its Broadway opening. On the Terrace Theater stage, Schneider keeps a tight rein on the comic antics in fidelity to Beckett.
Beckett did call his play a "tragicomedy." It is mixture of the bitter and the comic.Beckett's universe is bleak and empty, with life a string of monotonous and meaningless events. "Godot" may be a play about nothingness, but Beckett's tramps have a spunkiness when they pick themselves up after a pratfall. If the message is one of blank despair, there is also tender compassion for the perplexity of the human condition.
The story line of "Godot" is quite simple. The two tramps -- Vladimir and Estragon, who use the childish nicknames of Didi and Gogo in speaking to each other -- are waiting under a withered tree on a deserted stage for the appearance of someone named Godot. There is nothing they can do but wait.
They are visited by a master-and-slave pair, Pozzo and Lucky. A boy comes at the end of each of the two acts to say Godot won't come until the next day.
Richard Howard gives a strong performance as Vladimir. He brings the character to life with special mannerisms -- the stiff-jointed walk, fingers to the lips as he ponders or puzzles a thought. He has a face that lights up as he tries to see the optimistic side of the human plight. As the bulky Estragon, Richard S. Iglewski underplays the comic possibilities of the role under Schneider's direction. He has his moments, but is difinitely a low-key performance.
Keith David has the stage presence and booming voice for Pozzo. As Lucky, Pozzo's mistreated slave, Paul Walker cringes ang slobbers until he is ordered to "think" and delivers his bravura speech of incoherent words of learning and scholarship.
"Nothing is finally certain in "Godot." Vladimir and Estragon are not even sure of God's name. They don't know what it is. Estragon doesn't remember meeting Pozzo the first time, and the boy messenger, on his second visit, tells Vladimir that he did not come the day before.
The two tramps eat carrots, embrace each other, button their flies, talk about life and happiness, take off their boots, embrace, exchange epithets and go on waiting, searching to fill to time. It is a play about nothing and yet seldom boring. In "Godot," Beckett sometimes does lapse into repetitiveness, missing the concentrated intensity of his one-act masterpiece, "Krapp's Last Tape." But "Godot" remains compelling drama.
It will be formed through Sunday with performances at 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday evening. Matinees are scheduled for 1 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.