Last weekend, about an hour before sunset, the touristy end of Seattle's waterfront was packed with its usual crowd of summer characters: fatigued-looking fathers in sandals fielding repeated requests from small children who wanted ice cream, plump ladies in flip-flops hauling themselves into bicycle taxis, a young white man strumming a guitar for spare change, an older black man blowing a trumpet for the same reason, and the inevitable grimy-looking kids with backpacks and cardboard signs asking for donations, most of them wearing worn-down boots and ripped-up black denim decorated with beer bottle caps and faded patches with the names of bands.
Two of those apocalyptic-looking kids loitered at Waterfront Park, the next pier over from the new Ferris wheel. One of them stood at a railing, gazing intently across Puget Sound. The other sat on a wood pallet, trying to pull off a boot. The only notable difference between them and the other waterfront vagabonds was their slightly cleaner fingernails and their audience—a few dozen people sitting in folding chairs in the fading sunlight. The boot-puller (wearing a hunting cap with earflaps) stopped, sighed, and said: "Nothing to be done." The sea-gazer (wearing a cap with tattered cloth taped on the back to protect his neck from the sun) turned and said: "I'm beginning to come round to that opinion."
With that, Waiting for Godot, the second annual show by Arts on the Waterfront, had begun. The actors stuck closely to the text, but the show looked and felt different than other Godots. The actors were young. And they weren't wearing the required bowler hats. That, explained AOTW artistic director Mickey Rowe, was in direct violation of the wishes of the Samuel Beckett estate. But the company (whose first production last summer was a two-person Romeo and Juliet) didn't want to produce another spare, theater-in-a-vacuum-style Waiting for Godot. AOTW performs on the waterfront because it wants to absorb all the energy, noise, and chaos of the city. (Its website credits "the city of Seattle and sunset" for lighting design.) The goal, Rowe said, is to "create a reality where some people might believe: 'Oh yes, this scene could be happening right now, without an audience, somewhere else on the pier."
Those changes are small, almost insignificantly cosmetic—as is the decision to have the cruel Pozzo, who shows up with one of his slaves, smoke a glass pot pipe instead of a tobacco pipe—but they shift the way the play lands. Beckett's tramps still talk about their empty stomachs, their aching feet, how bad they smell, their sores and diseases, and whether this mystery man named Godot will ever show up and save them from their stasis. But AOTW's small, stubborn insistence that Godot happen here and now gives the play a new jolt of electricity.
The two young tramps (Jay Myers as Vladimir and Spencer Hamp as Estragon) still have a few scraps of the mannered, stiff stage presence that afflicts almost all new actors. But they casually nailed the jokes about being so bored and so always-slightly uncomfortable that even suicide sounds like a pleasant distraction: "What do we do now?" asked the more serious Vladimir. "Wait," shrugged the more puppy-dog Estragon. "Yes, but while waiting." "What about hanging ourselves?" "Hmm. It'd give us an erection." "An erection!... Let's hang ourselves immediately!" But the nearest tree branch looks weak and Godot might show up. "Don't let's do anything," they concluded. "It's safer."
Soon, Pozzo (an amiable yet sinister Ben Phillips, who looks like a suburban drug dealer who's trying to look like Kevin Federline) showed up with his pot pipe, his chicken leg, and his slave named Lucky (Nate Pringle, whose military fatigues and scrambled manner make him seem like a shell-shocked veteran of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) to help them pass the time.
In AOTW's rebelliously updated Godot, the two homeless punks are patron saints of inertness—they talk for hours about not doing anything, not saying anything, not noticing anything, not knowing anything. They're pathetic, but at least they have the power to make choices (even if they don't use it very often). Lucky, the addled veteran (and perhaps drug addict?), is forced to do things by the greedy Pozzo, who is himself a slave to his own desires. In the end, the tramps are still stuck in a purgatory of their own making that is endlessly frustrating, and never so excruciating that it gets interesting. But, as if by magic, they keep our attention.