BWW Reviews: Rudi Azank's WHILE WAITING FOR GODOT - A Web Series of the Play Where Something Happens
What if Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT took place on the streets of New York as a contemporary work in 2013? You might have Rudi Azank's web series, WHILE WAITING FOR GODOT as the result. Its first season, in four parts, is available on Youtube and Vimeo, and on its own webpage, www.whilewaitingforgodot.com. An academic production with a cast and crew from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, its grainy black-and-white cinematography gives it the feeling of an earlier vintage of film - a silent movie that's been launched into the sound era.
If SEINFELD was the series famously "about nothing," WHILE WAITING FOR GODOT is even more so, since its original is known as the play in which nothing happens, twice. But ah, what happens while nothing is happening is the point. Just as life is what happens while you're making other plans, Beckett's heroes have a great deal occur while nothing is going on. And in the case of WHILE WAITING FOR GODOT, nothing happens in grand style, in cinematography, in acting, and in some nicely thought-out musical choices accompanying the video work. In fact, a great deal happens while nothing is happening.
The first not-quite-ten-minute installment opens with "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," which serves only to accentuate the nostalgic feel of the footage; it is also the first hint that the music chosen for the series is going to be interesting. Ran Shelomi and Azank star as Estragon and Vladimir (Gogo and Didi), in younger, contemporarily semi-hip, semi-panhandler guise, on a street bench as opposed to a mound, and with Estragon wrestling a modern shoe rather than a boot, when the familiar dialogue begins. "Nothing to be done," falling from Estragon's lips, immediately locates us in familiar theatrical territory, no matter the updating and the urban locale.
From a textual standpoint, the play has been updated and relocated where it counts - the Eiffel Tower is now the Empire State building, making the line "in the nineties" have a very real and precise identification to viewers of a certain age who knew the city when. As the project is authorized by Beckett's estate, that's not of concern, as Azank's updating does in fact work; it's neither heavy-handed nor ill-conceived as so many updates of scripts often are, and as a filmed work with the actual backdrop of the city behind the cast, the changes agree with the setting. It's unusual to see GODOT with actual background and physical context that's not sparse, and the grounding in a very real, though altered-by-the-camera, New York changes the viewer's perspective entirely if familiar with the stage version - the absurdism is suddenly anchored in reality, making it seem perhaps less unreal than it normally does.
The four episodes progress from there with the second installment opening in daylight with a view of the aforementioned Empire State Building.and Midtown's contrast of workers, the wealthy, and visible street poverty, and then progressing to the streets at night, with only music as the audio track, primarily strings. The first two minutes run in this vein, until Bugs Bunny, in a clip of his performing at a conductor's podium, raps the podium with his baton to bring attention, then cutting immediately back to Gogo and Didi. As a cinematographic technique, the montage and subsequent cuts work fairly well, though the sudden insertion of the very short Warner Brothers cartoon cut is more disorienting than a means of attracting attention. Perhaps the effect is intended.
Shelomi and Azank are capable actors, certainly more than verbally facile with the material newly translated by Azank, although they have the common tendency of stage actors new to cinema to over-gesture on screen. The resulting blurring of motion in the videography, especially in the first two installments, is muddy and distracting; as this is an academic project, it's to be expected that the cast would eventually master the nuances of moving from stage to screens of various sizes and be better able to compensate accordingly. However, that should not be an excuse not to follow their dialogue, which is indeed nicely handled. They are certainly facile with comedy, verbal as well as physical, and given the black-and-white and the musical choices, it is likely that a harkening to early Laurel and Hardy (and to Chaplin, as well) is intended - if so, it certainly comes across well. Azank is not lacking in directorial vision.
In updating the translation, a few choices have been made that seem natural to this writer for the urban setting and the characters, but that may bother other viewers; one is the tendency to update epithets towards the more crude than not. The line sometimes rendered "People are bloody ignorant apes" has been replaced with a comment as to their being a part of reproductive anatomy, in cruder terminology. While this may not be of concern to the generation geared towards watching web series, a Beckett web series is likely of more interest than most web series to a different and older group of viewers who may not be comfortable with such language. The production is not laden with these, but viewers of sensitive natures or who would like to have their children see it should be aware of the fact that this is there.
The series as a whole goes, visually, into territory perhaps never intended by Beckett but that is well worth exploring in the context of the play, most especially the cinema verite effect of incorporating the visual exploration of poverty that transforms the series from simply recording Beckett's play to a commentary on modern New York society and economic distribution. Although Beckett never insisted that Estragon and Vladimir be tramps, the fact that they have become such iconically makes the exploration eminently suitable to the framework.
Funding is being sought to produce a second season of WHILE WAITING... . As neatly as the heroes have been handled, one can scarcely wait to see what will be done with Pozzo and Lucky upon their arrival; thus, it is to be hoped that money comes through. Azank's website for the show contains related information.
The website is available at www.whilewaitingforgodot.com.