Metafiction is hard, it requires an understanding of the source material with an open mind to the stylistic choices of the author, which might seem perverse to a fan of the original text. This problem increases with live theater, where the audience is expected to not only bring an awareness of the thing referenced, but also an ability to parse the new avenues, metaphors and meanings being explored in real time. Movies and television, with their playback format, have made us indolent and atrophied the muscles required for on-the-go analysis. The gold standard for live theatrical metafiction is Tom Stoppard's brilliant 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where the titular characters are elevated from the position of unfortunate servants and sidemen to Beckett-esque existential scientists, pondering and sounding out the geography of human experience in the liminal spaces at the edge of the action in Shakespeare's Hamlet. In other words, it's a fucking gold record classic.
The EXIT Theatre's production of Marc Gabriel's Waking Sam Beckett isn't on that level of presentation but few things are. However, this play (which on opening night was restricted to one act due to COVID troubles during rehearsals) is perfect for exactly what it is. I reviewed the source material, Waiting for Godot, at Synapsis back in December of 2021 and so am less than a year gone from a strong familiarity with the play, both live and on paper (my copy is glowering at me from my bookshelf like the picture of a cousin's ugly child). So, it was nice to see the characters of Didi (Gabriel) and Gogo (Christina Augello) back in action. The set was great, with a dark impressionist backdrop by artist Kaitlin Mottershead, the ubiquitous bare and stark tree, a boxy grave and some redwood stumps among the scattered redwood duff. And like the props required for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the notes were largely all there, from a pebble in Gogo's boot to a sparse carrot for nourishment, to the protagonist's two hats, the ownership of which seems to always be confused. Gabriel really knows his Godot.
However, the tone was different, lighter and seemingly inflected by West Coast casualness that reminded me of the greatest period piece set in L.A.: The Big Lebowski. Didi and Gogo aren't quite as argumentative as in the original play, and almost seemed relieved by their shared task, which was burying (and/or digging up) the unseen body of the playwright Samuel Beckett. There were slight visual gags galore, with Gogo's forward attitude and competent digging abilities reflected by his shovel, which was pointed for digging, while Didi's recalcitrant incompetence was furthered by his flattened spade. Gogo is cruder and more circumspect about the grisly task, noting the author "stunk while he was alive." Didi responds with the poetic and diplomatic musing that "maybe now he's fragrant." This is typical of the general wordplay tossed about in this production, which, instead of being occasionally maddening like in the original piece, I found to be generally funny. I applaud the comic timing of Augello in particular, whose vulgarity and foulness was never overplayed. The two actors have a genuine chemistry and there wasn't a moment when I found myself drawn out of the action by a misstep. This is a very well-acted piece.
I don't want to spill any more ink going on about the theme and trajectory of the play — the audience will have a better time going in without any spoilers. However, I would suggest that any potential viewers brush up on Waiting for Godot, as it really helps flesh out the full meaning of the action. My companion was not in the loop and felt a little left out, although the essential humor of the work still comes through in quite a few places. I think the play is perfect for what it is, so obviously a product of the playwright's love of the source, married to his material position in this time and place, namely an avant garde West Coast theatre company that's been in action (in San Francisco) for the last four decades. That isn't to say it's a big blockbuster, rather it should be considered as an excellent and enjoyable slice of life. The space in the EXIT Theatre, upstairs on the northeastern edge of the Arcata Plaza, was set up in a cozy way that is very accommodating to the action. I left wanting more, and I understand there will be a free stage reading of the missing second act at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23. You might even find me skulking in the back for that. In the meantime, I think any lover of live theater, existential metafiction or not, should go see this. Bring a friend, be they a Didi, Gogo, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. I guarantee you'll have something to talk about afterward.
EXIT Theatre's Waking Sam Beckett runs through this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21-22 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. Call (415) 203-2516 or visit theexit.org.
Collin Yeo (he/him) chooses to believe in the apocryphal tale that Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school in the flatbed of his truck. It's probably bullshit but someone should still write a play about it. He lives in Arcata.
Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters, about a woman who plays her dead sister's Dungeons and Dragons module, opens at the Van Duzer Theatre Oct. 21 and runs through Oct. 23. Call (707) 826-3928 or visit centerarts.humboldt.edu.