“The Underpants Godot”

The Underpants Godot

By Duncan Pflaster
Directed by Alan Quismorio

Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir) Photo by Joseph Tally.
Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir) Photo by Joseph Tally.

San Francisco, CA
at Theatre Rhinoceros

What fun! Especially for a theater fan who still cringes when he remembers going to a production of Waiting for Godot when he was precocious senior in high school.

I was too young, too tired, or too something for the non-action on stage. I don’t remember the details of the play, but I remember the agonizing pacing, and I remember wondering if the plaudits for Beckett’s writing weren’t a giant hoax aimed at too trusting and too serious students who were trying to understand Culture.

Getting the references and riffs in Theatre Rhinoceros’ pop-up production of The Underpants Godot made that long night of theater 40-some years ago worthwhile.

Duncan Pflaster’s script is a masterpiece that often mirrors the cadence and character relationships of Beckett’s Godot. But Pflaster makes intelligent and understandable points about theater, people, and life. There are a lot of comments about theater, and they are both insightful and very, very funny.

The plot tells the story of a Waiting for Godot production where the characters are gay men wearing, at most, underpants. We watch as a rehearsal is stopped by the visit of a representative of the estate of Samuel Beckett. She has to determine if this underpants version violates the terms of the license which demand faithfulness to the text and to Beckett’s intent.

As the characters explore the legitimacy of the underpants concept, a lot of theater is discussed in a humorous, yet meaningful way.

The estate representative, for example, lists in rapid-fire the different concepts she’s seen used in producing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “One set in Greenwich Village where the Fairies were actually the Mafia? One set in a drive-in where the Fairies were B-movie Monsters from Beyond the Silver Screen? One set at Christmas with Oberon as Santa Claus and Puck as an elf? One set outdoors in a park, where the Fairies were the Homeless?”

Funny, yes. But, also on point in the discussion of how far can/should directors go in using a play for their own purposes.

If nothing else, Theatre Rhino gets applause for its play selection.

Fortunately, their pop-up production is excellently done. Truly.

First, the space they are using is a corner of the Sparks Art Gallery. The back exhibition room has 34 folding chairs set up to face the other wall. The stage is the floor from the far wall 20 feet toward the center of the room. This is a perfect set for Waiting for Godot where the only scenery is a rock and a scrawny tree. It works completely.

Director Alan Quismorio assembled a cast that ranges from very credible to absolutely wonderful. Four actors were standouts.

Andrew Calabrese (Kevin/Lucky) earned show-stopping applause for Kevin’s unexpected detailed oration that started with the exploration of the homoerotic nature Waiting for Godot. The lines are brilliant and an homage to a similar unexpected outburst by Lucky in Beckett’s work. Calabreses nailed the speech and his character.

Francisco Rodriguez (Tim/Vladamir) and Jordan Ong (Mark/Estragon) switch back and forth between their roles as actors and the characters in Beckett’s play with easy clarity. Director Quismorio has them swish and sashay as their characters in Waiting for Godot, and then be grumpier and butcher as gay actors. I loved that decision and the way the actors pulled it off. These men carry the play and they don’t falter.

Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir)  Photo by Joseph Tally.
Jordan Ong (as Mark, an actor playing Estragon) and
Francisco Rodriguez (as Tim, and actor playing Vladamir) Photo by Joseph Tally.

The representative of the Becket estate is not consistent in her actions. Sometimes she bends and sometimes she is unyielding, and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent motivation for either behavior. Yet, Elizabeth Finkler (Tara) is so big and certain in her portrayal of the representative that while the play was going on I didn’t question any of her rulings. Later, talking about the play with friends, I thought, “Wait! Why was x okay but y would be a showstopper? It should have been explained.”

Of course, to honor Beckett, nothing should be explained. And, Finkler’s Tara let us keep our questions unthought of past the wildly enthusiastic curtain call.

In a performance where everything works, it’s got to be the director’s fault. So, special applause to Quismorio who made a theater pop up in a small art gallery’s back room. He used, not just put up with, the location and give us an intimate performance of a tight play. The characters worked together and the action felt consistent and logical.

The Underpants Godot pop-up production is a terrifically enjoyable surprise. Theatre Rhino gives the audience a very witty and wise play delivered with style and spot-on acting. See it if you can!

The Underpants Godot has two more performances, Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23. Online tickets are sold out but a limited number of tickets are sold at the door for $10-30. Contact [email protected] for more information about attending.

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