What if you were waiting for a bus that never came? There are simple answers, of course — walk, complain, litigate, or maybe just go home. But what if you spent years, a lifetime, waiting? Tracing the same steps trod by Beckett in Waiting for Godot, Nobel-prizewinning Chinese writer Gao Xingjan constructs an uncanny reality centered around a bus stop. The Bus Stop is simultaneously a send up and a reconsideration of Beckett — for Gao’s characters wait is movement, carrying them from purgatory to the closest approximation of redemption: control of their fate. Though bleak, Gao’s vision is not without hope: movement is possible if you move. Gao’s existential queries are given voice by a diverse and entertaining cast of characters, seeming to be randomly united by their presence at a suburban bus stop. A silent man, a chess player, a young hothead, a fidgety girl, a mother, a student and a store director wait together for transportation to the city. As they wait, the old man frames the discussion, “When you stand in line according to the rules there are always those who don’t go by the rules.”
With the passage of time, these figures become more desperate, but also more intimate, sharing personal details, specifically their reasons for traveling to the city. The tragic question arises: if one does not hope or have dreams of a better life, what does the present, or the passage of time, mean?
To render this bleak, but familiar landscape Samantha Schect, also the show’s director, has designed a set with a swirling white circle beneath a wooden, cross-shaped bus stop sign at its center, directing the eye to this void. The entire set creates an atmosphere of endlessness and helplessness, of being sucked in to an unidentified center. Additionally, each group of audience seats, four in total, looks like its own bus terminal. With the repetition of structure, there is the sense of community, but by walling off each section, the seating underscores themes of alienation and desperation.
Though much of the existential musing is neither new nor mind-blowing, Gao’s play distinguishes itself with clever humor and criticism of Chinese society and government. The show’s program tells us that Communist Party officials labeled the play, which opened in Beijing in 1983, “spiritual pollution.” It’s not hard to see what provoked such a response. Gao’s characters initially regard waiting as an act of “social morality” — whether or not one has to wait indicates his station in life. That these people wait eternally signifies their meaninglessness in the eyes of the government. By setting opinions so ludicrous, but so common, against a ridiculous backdrop, Gao undermines this way of thinking, and kindly saves his characters from the void.
But salvation does not come easily, or quickly. The path is fraught with painful realizations. A young girl played with an endearing, yet heartbreaking level of anxiety by Alice Oh realizes that she will grow old and that, in the words of the mother, a woman’s life is waiting: waiting to get married, waiting to have children, waiting for them to age. Life is an eternal struggle, with eternally delayed gratification.
The concerns of the characters are most acute when they reveal what draws them to the city. The young girl was supposed to meet a man. As the possibility of a union dims, she is forced to blurt out: “I’ve become so petty…I know it’s not right to feel this way, but whenever I see city girls wearing those high-heeled shoes, I feel like they’re walking all over me and flaunting themselves to humiliate me…You can’t imagine how jealous I am.”
Thankfully, Gao balances the desperate notes with humor, animated most vividly by Jamie Grayson as Director Ma. Director Ma epitomizes the elitist who enjoys playing the system; he is happy with his station and cares nothing for his fellow men. Yet he finds himself stuck with this group because his bribes have failed. Throughout the play Grayson tickles the other characters like a giddy devil, enticing them to give up on the dream of the city and return to the comforts of home. His character is hilariously glib and Grayson hams it up, providing the easy laughter a struggling citizen desperately needs.
Though some of the jokes and criticism are lost in translation (the idea that one cannot sue a bus company is completely laughable on this side of the Pacific), the fact that a play condemned as pernicious by Communist officials resonates with an American audience attests to the strength of the writing and acting. If the show can occasionally be too funny to carry gravity, this isn’t necessarily a problem — who needs the philosophical quandaries of Beckett when you can get up and go?