February 3, 2023

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From theater to performance: “Waiting for Godot” in Ivana Muller’s “Slowly, slowly… Until the sun comes up” [by Tracy Danison]

* Peter Woodthorpe one day asked Beckett what “Waiting for Godot” was really about: “It’s all symbiosis, Peter, it’s symbiosis,” he said. Woodthorpe played Tarragon in the first British production. -Wikipedia. Photo © Atelier de Paris

When I was a student in the mid-1970s, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was to modern theater what Macbeth was to modern tragedy. What did the National Observer call the Warsaw Uprising? Godot was “A Reminder & a Symbol!”.

At least that’s how it seemed to me.

At least one grantee felt obligated to at least acknowledge references in order to earn a spot on the department cocktail.

In fact, sometime in the late ’60s, I had been precociously corrupted by my late brother Peter, who was already a student. We shared a love of literature and a great distrust of those above us.

Peter had introduced me to Godot at the widow’s ceremony of our old Victorian house. We used to hoist ourselves up there sometimes to smoke cigarettes. Good visibility and absolutely safe from annoying busybodies.

At the time I was busy building a “cloud chamber” – advertised by my father’s Scientific American as an easy way to prove in your own home that atomic particles exist. From there I guess I was hoping to show that Jesus was just an undigested piece of beef and that sex was just okay.

Peter learned Godot for English and brought the playbook up with us.

I glanced at it and made a rough noise for comment.

But Peter said, not for the first time, something like, “No, no, you’re wrong,” stood up, straightened, and read a few lines while (carefully!) patting that narrow patch of lead, tin, and Slate galloped off a perch. From further conversation and his utterly candid galotts, I could understand that Godot didn’t think it was about what was said or not said, but how the performers said it. It was a really good game too.

Later, when I saw Godot on stage, as my brother had predicted, I was carried away by the movements, looks, pauses, postures and snippets of conversation. And it was a really good play for that, not for the fuzzy story it told.

This walk through the light-critical memory trail is due to the thoughts behind Ivana Müller’s performance theater piece “Slow, slow… Until the sun rises”. Also included: Atelier de Paris, a chat with a fellow viewer, a few hasty words with Müller himself and a fairly long bike ride through the forest and the city at night.

I walked slowly, slowly… without seeing much expectation; I avoid reading the notes before a performance. The only work I’ve seen of Müller, as far as I can remember, is Hors-Champ (Off-field), an in situ performance, part of Lafayette Anticipations’ Echelle Humaine 2019 dance performance program.

Before entering the “Slowly, Slowly…” room, viewers must at least remove their socks and shoes and put on clean socks. After that, they enter the space: long benches arranged in a square around a large performance space. Swaths of beige or gray fabric cover audience benches and performance spaces alike.

From theater to performance: “Waiting for Godot” in Ivana Muller’s “Slowly, slowly… Until the sun comes up” [by Tracy Danison]

As in real life, Ivana Müller’s “Slowly, Slowly… Until the Sun Comes Up” ends with the performers rolling up the covers. Photo © Atelier de Paris

I took my seat and felt like I was bending over a sunken space…like a wrestling pit or an orchestra pit.

A multicolored full cover tarp lets Slowly, Slowly’s three performers – two men and one woman – pull out and use long strips of multicolored fabric for activities throughout the performance.

The piece ends when the performers unroll the tarpaulin.

Three minutes of dialogue in Slowly, Slowly and Waiting for Godot popped into my head. As the cast members try to smooth or smooth wrinkles or dress in whatever fabrics are closest to them or pulled out from under the tarp, Slowly, Slowly’s dialogue revolves mostly around the cast members’ dream monologues. The monologues and accompanying short comments are allusive and evasive to avoid conclusions. The performers’ verbal and physical interactions suggest patterns and locations, and then, since there’s nothing to worry about, just change the subject, vary words, syntax and indirection a bit.

Three minutes after realizing this, it occurred to me that Ivana Müller’s performance space had recreated in my imagination the “sleep and rattle pit” – where you could sleep as you wished – that brought my parents to the family summer house had. And because it puts a physical place where the story is set—no street corners, no chance meetings, no slaves, no masters: no literary clichés, no ongoing other stories to pursue (WTF? A sleep pit? What do you mean? What story is that from?) – it’s all very different from Godot.

And 10 minutes after realizing that…I was totally blown away by the shuffle, the work, the looks, pauses, and postures, and savoring the pointless chat content. A chat that felt a lot more like my son’s text messages than tarragon and Vladimir’s cracker keg philosophizing. And all of this within the comfortable framework of a private memory, evoked by Müller’s psychosocially informed, as opposed to literary and politically informed, stagecraft.

When the performance was over, the person next to me, a stage scenario performer, it turned out, took the performance entirely in stride and volunteered among other keen observations and praise, which she also sipped in memories of sleepovers: an experience of that positive feeling, a sense of moments of friendship and intimacy.

When I told Ivana Müller that I was impressed by the Waiting-for-Godot in her Slowly, Slowly…, she told me she was unfamiliar with Beckett’s play.

I think Mueller.

Even though my brother was dead, he was absolutely right in seeing Godot as the how rather than the what. Contemporary and later critics, along with Becket himself, on the other hand, were almost right in thinking that the play was about how you say something.

It’s the greatest modern play, but that’s because it bears so little resemblance to theater and so much to contemporary performance. It’s a transition piece.

Beckett struggled to get where he is going and struggled even more to understand where he had gotten to.*

Seventy years after Godot – and still without a critical Un-Narrative framework to explain this! – Ivana Müller just doesn’t have to think too much about shaping movement, place and sound to make a “performance dance” that goes beyond words.

Did I mention Slowly, Slowly…Till the sun comes up, like Samuel Beckett’s number has that special piquancy that makes a good performance? Put Ivana Muller’s Slow Down, Slow Down…Till the Sun Rises on your bucket list and you won’t go wrong.