This weekend, Pale Fire Theater presents a simultaneously hilarious and depressing play rife with impressive performances and directing.

On Thursday, December 8, I attended the opening night of Pale Fire Theater’s production of Waiting for Godot, the first of two more performances on December 9 and 10 at 7:30pm. 

Pale Fire Theater is organized independently of the University, but is composed mostly of Columbia and NYU students. It was founded in 2019 by Shayan Hooshmand (CC ’23) and Henry Alper (Atlantic Acting School, NYU Tisch) in Palo Alto, California where a production of Hamlet was held. Pale Fire Theater aims to provide artists the opportunity to put on theater productions while maintaining artistic liberty, creative expression, and art experimentation. Waiting for Godot is Pale Fire’s second production and their first to take place in New York City. 

Waiting for Godot is a two-act play that takes place in a barren, post-apocalyptic country landscape. Two friends, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), discuss their bleak lives and uncertain futures, believing that all their issues will be resolved once an unseen character, Godot, arrives. The play includes appearances by passerby Pozzo and his servant Lucky, who he treats in an abusive, domineering manner. Pozzo and Lucky provide momentary entertainment for Didi and Gogo, driven immensely irritable due to their constant unrelinquished boredom. Later on, a messenger of Godot enters, declaring that while Godot is not coming that night, he will come the following. 

I’ve been wanting to read the script of Waiting for Godot for a long time. However, I was always at a standstill, thinking should I read the script first, or watch the play? After coming across the play’s flyers posted around campus, I immediately bought tickets for the opening night. I’m a fan of author Samuel Beckett’s other works, such as Endgame, also an existentialist tragicomedy. Existentialist literature and philosophy have played a strong influence in the past few years of my life, so I was eager to see what Pale Fire had to offer in their production. (For reference for those unfamiliar with existentialism, it is a philosophy dedicated to the belief that the world is inherently meaningless, signifying the free will of humans and their ability to create their own forms of individual meaning.) 

I entered this production already having high expectations—this is a famous play put on by talented Columbia and NYU actors, so why wouldn’t it be mind-blowing? Nonetheless, as it seems of all University-affiliated productions, my expectations were still blown out of the water. 

Upon entering the West End Theatre, I was greeted by a minimalist set. Two items set the stage: a dead tree engulfed by creeping vines and a garbage heap—a pile of chairs, shoes, trash bags, cardboard, and what appeared to be a brown vine-covered bean bag. (While this is referred to in the script as an earthly mound, I thought the portrayal of a garbage heap was effective in conveying the dismal, post-apocalyptic setting.) The venue was perfectly chosen—the worn-down chairs and peeling ceiling contributed to the imperfection of the setting in the way a University venue would not. 

Waiting for Godot Stage.

Before the start of the show, an eerie sound loop of wind noises played, establishing the tone of the piece. A member of the staff further upheld this tone setting, announcing “the fire exits… use them” and asking us not to enter “the aisles… our actors use them,” phrases uttered in between wind-imitating oohs and ahhs. This mimicked the previous sound loop, acknowledging the gravity of the setting yet the comedic nature of the script. 

The strong performances of the four-person cast were what blew me away the most. While Waiting for Godot is usually composed of older actors, Pale Fire Theater took artistic liberty and effectively made use of a younger cast, breaking industry boundaries. Gogo (Shayan Hooshmand) was the comedic heart of this play. While his character’s words expressed deep existential dread and hopelessness, he stated them in a sarcastic, cheeky manner. At one point in the play, he does a balancing yoga tree pose, grinning proudly at Didi (Henry Alper) and asking, “Do you think God sees me?”, met with roars of laughter from the audience. Hooshmand’s performance incorporated skilled physical acting—you could sense Gogo’s immense boredom by his actions, not just his words. Gogo was always doing something to pass the time—whether it be bouncing his foot, kneading the skin on his leg, rearranging his fingerless gloves, or eating chicken he dropped on the floor. (Now that is dedicated—what else perfectly encapsulates apathy other than disobeying the five-second rule?) Hooshmand also showed off his wide range of accents, switching from posh British to deep Southern just to provide a moment of fun to relieve his boredom. 

Hooshmand and Alper’s performances were extremely impressive. As they were the only two characters on stage for the majority of the play, their memorization and delivery of rapid fire sarcastic quips were executed skillfully. Nils Asmundsson (CC ’24) perfectly captured the extravagance and hilarity of Pozzo, making the audience laugh when he exclaimed “Help!” each time Gogo and Didi discussed whether or not they should “help” him off the floor he has just collapsed on. 

John Howley (CC ’25) delivered a standout performance as Lucky. For most of his time on stage, he stood in the back of the theater, tottering on two legs with an exhausted, tortured, captivating expression. His one monologue impacted the audience paradoxically—some members erupted into laughter, while others felt devastated by the tragedy of his character’s situation and physical state. Lucky simultaneously invoked humor and anguish in the audience, a nuance that is hard to perfect but exigent for the play’s purpose. Howley’s performance as Godot’s messenger was also carried out well—he conveyed a deep sorrow and emptiness through his mannerisms and distant speech. 

A central part of Waiting for Godot comes down to the relationship between Didi and Gogo, which is also left up for interpretation by each audience member. Are they best friends? Lovers? Or merely two strangers forced together by means of survival? Alper and Hooshmand chose to portray intimacy throughout their performance, often hugging and not hesitating to touch and comfort each other. At one point, Didi takes his coat off and covers Gogo with it, singing him a song and kissing him on the forehead, left shivering in the cold after Gogo falls asleep. These characters evidently care a lot about each other—a point which is likely intentional, building off the existentialist theme of the piece. While Didi and Gogo have practically nothing to live for, they have found meaning in each other. 

Didi and Gogo embrace.

The stage direction of Waiting for Godot was excellent. After Lucky launches into his monologue, he enters a state of frenzy, chasing Didi, Gogo, and Pozzo around the set with almost-rabid intention. This scene was magnificently entertaining. I wondered: was this improvised or choreographed intentionally? Given the excellence of the play, I wouldn’t be surprised if the characters’ movements were blocked and memorized, a feat which would add to the impressive nature of the play. 

While I highly enjoyed this performance, I occasionally found that the actors talked so fast that I missed the point. Given this script was written in the late 1940s, the audience has to pay a little extra attention to understand the language. A few times, I could tell that I missed an important plot point or joke because of the quick pace of the script. However, this also contributed to the charm of the play (and reminded me vaguely of the fast-paced quips of Gilmore Girls). Additionally, I would have liked to have seen a Director’s Note or additional contextual information regarding the production in the program, given how much I enjoyed the performance. 

While the script of Waiting for Godot conveys existentialism’s main tenets through humor and thought-provoking dialogue, the script is only effective with a strong performance. The strong direction and acting of Pale Fire Theater’s production allowed the audience to not only enjoy the existentialist message, but think about their own interpretations of the plot. 

For example, the audience garnered that one of the of the main themes of this play was boredom. Every day is the same for our characters; they forget the day before. They wait by the same tree for Godot, are greeted by Godot’s messenger who says he’ll come tomorrow, go into the night to be subjected to unexplained beatings, and repeat. Since each day is the same, everything is monotonous. Didi and Gogo find themselves in a constant state of movement, vying desperately for an ounce of entertainment. It creates a moral question—at one point, Didi and Gogo criticize Pozzo for how they treat Lucky. Soon after, they’re exploiting and ordering around Lucky just like Pozzo. At what point does the sham of moral high ground fall, giving way to the exercising of autonomy and cruelty? 

Waiting for Godot incorporates many details that frame a microcosm for existentialist philosophy. At the beginning of the first act, Gogo struggles to take off his boots, setting the stage for the theme of stuckness that defines the rest of the play. At the start of the second act, Didi erupts into a bout of song. Upon researching the significance of this section, I learned that Beckett included this folk song because it is built on an eternal loop, such as each day that Didi and Gogo endure. 

Additionally, throughout the play, Gogo says that he’ll leave Didi, wondering “if we wouldn’t have been better off alone.” A similar exchange occurs between the characters of Beckett’s Endgame. In both plays, the characters recurrently claim to leave the person they are tied to, and never definitively do. This echoes the monotonous nature of the play—as humans, we tend to claim that we’ll do something “someday,” but never get around to it. This is also mirrored throughout Didi and Gogo’s act of waiting for Godot. It doesn’t matter who Godot is, or if he even exists—he’s a symbol. Didi and Gogo wait for Godot the same way people anticipate and hope for meaning and happiness. A new car. A raise. Death, even. Godot is the “if only.” The declaration that, “Once I have this, then I’ll be happy.” The pair believes that once Godot comes, they will be cared for and saved. However, even if Godot did come, wouldn’t Didi and Gogo find something else to suffer over? Who’s to guarantee that Godot’s vague proposal won’t make their lives worse

In their waiting, Didi and Gogo find their own ways to pass the time. “Never neglect the little things of life,” Didi says about buttoning his pants. Gogo, meanwhile, eats a carrot. They embrace. They entertain themselves in games of switching hats and pestering strangers. This is the core existentialist message. Every day is the same, devoid of meaning. Thus, we must devise our own ways of coping—create our own meaning. We create our habits, rituals, traditions. We rely on each other. Eat a carrot, button our pants. We wait for Godot. 

From left to right: Didi (Henry Alper) and Gogo (Shayan Hooshmand).
From left to right: Pozzo (Nils Asmundsson) and Lucky (John Howley). 

(Fun fact—I discovered that Sesame Street put on a parody of Waiting for Godot called “Waiting for Elmo,” which you can watch here.) 

There are two more performances of this play left: Friday, December 9 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, December 10 at 7:30 pm. The address is the West End Theatre on 263 W 86th St. Admission is $12 for students online and $15 at the door. (We encourage you to buy tickets online—we expect the show to sell out fast!) 

Pale Fire Theater is also accepting donations for their performance here

Waiting for Godot Stage via Staff Writer Emma Burris

Cast Images via Olivia Namkoong (CC ’23)