What’s it about?
Contrary to what its name might suggest, Underpants Godot is NOT (!!!) Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot being performed in underwear. Rather, it is a play about the play being performed in ways that the author may not have liked.
What'd I experience?
Looking for a reason to get out of my routine I chose to see a play with the word "underpants" in the title in a part of the city that I rarely visit. I rode the G train from its first stop to its last, getting off at Court Square to find a place called The Secret Theatre. I walked for 15 minutes before finally coming upon the theatre, only to realize that it was actually just a few steps from the subway exit and I'd walked around only because I thought I had to.
The house is small but it is pretty full by showtime. A man who I think is the playwright sits in the row behind mine. I am definitely the youngest person here. The playbill, which is actually a playbill within another playbill, warns of "nudity, profanity, and literary criticism."
I feel excited to finally see in action a story that my mother, a professor of English literature, told me many times when I was too young to know what it means. The lights dim as a man in sweatpants and a t-shirt that says “merde” walks out onstage. He gives the audience the usual spiel: silence phones, no photos, emergency exit over there.
Vladimir and Estragon - in underwear, of course - enter. They begin a scene as the man with the merde t-shirt watches with a critical eye.
Abruptly, their performance gets cut off by the entrance of a woman who identifies herself as a representative from Samuel Beckett’s estate. With this, the entire theatre is lit up by harsh fluorescent lights and it feels like I’ve become a silent participant in the show.
What follows was both fascinating and frustrating for me as it finally dawned on me that this was a play about a play.
The rest of the play was a quick mix of the disclaimer from the playbill as the actors – most of whom are pretty naked – passionately debate whether a story as old and beloved as Waiting for Godot can rightfully be performed in underwear (and include an obvious homoerotic subtext) if the text never specifies against it.
I didn’t know this before this play, but Samuel Beckett’s estate is notorious for shutting down reproductions of his plays that aren’t formally approved to be faithful to the original text. This makes the idea of a production of Godot performed entirely in underwear rebellious and risky, while raising the question of whether a classic play will be of any value to modern audiences if it isn’t updated to reflect modern times at all. As I watched this debate unfold, a part of me is very impressed that this play doesn’t just perform an old story in a silly way, but uses an old story to ask new, transformative questions.
Buuuut a bigger part of me really just waiting and hoping to kick back see men in underwear perform one of the most famous stories of existentialism from start to finish as if it’s not strange or inappropriate (because I don’t think that is strange or inappropriate). I came ready to see just that. But I guess as the play points out, as a theatre and literature community, we’re just not quite there yet.
In that way, watching Underpants Godot felt kind of like the original story. I was literally waiting for Waiting for Godot, but I didn’t realize that it didn’t exist here, that it would never come, that my hope for it was meaningless.