SM BLVD — With just 49 seats, the Black Box Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard is the kind of venue that’s accustomed to flying under the radar.

But when a director at the playhouse decided to stage Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” — and cast women in the male roles of Estragon and Pozzo — he got some quick attention from New York. And not the good kind.

The unconventional casting decision was a “blatant violation” of both a licensing agreement and copyright law, the play’s director, Ross Canton, was told in an e-mail from the Dramatists Play Service, which licensed the rights to “Waiting for Godot.”

“You must immediately cease and desist in any performance or production plans for “Waiting for Godot,” or face the possibility of serious legal action,” Craig Pospisil, director of nonprofessional licensing for the organization told the director.

To Canton, it was a shock he considered an attack on artistic freedom.

“Of course, all directors and actors should respect the author’s integrity and not defame the author’s reputation by making ‘Waiting For Godot’ into a farce or a romance between two clowns,” he said. “But instead of doing the same old somber, dire production of a play which no one wants to produce or see because it is so depressing … why not create a lively, entertaining, challenging production that resonates with meaning and shows the true genius and beauty of the play?” he said.

Besides, a hard and fast rule on cast members’ genders raises some tricky issues, he said.

“What if we cast four obviously ‘gay’ men in these parts? Is that allowed? Or does the mere fact of their sexual preference prohibit them from producing this play? What about transgender individuals? Are they prohibited as well?” Canton said.

Despite repeated calls by the Dramatists Play Service to shutter the production, Canton said the play was scheduled to be performed as planned Friday and Saturday evenings. The actors, he said, insisted on performing.

Pospisil could not be reached for this story.

It’s standard practice for authors or their estates to require accurate representations of copywrited work, so there’s nothing particularly surprising about threatened legal action over an alleged licensing agreement violation.

Under most licensing contracts, producers are generally barred from altering works by changing dialogue, omitting sections, adding an unauthorized soundtrack or engaging in gender bending.

The restrictions apply only to works that remain under copyright, so plays that have passed into the public domain — like works by Shakespeare, for example — are fair game for gender reversals and other types of adaptation.

For Canton, the decision to cast women in the male roles wasn’t a departure from Beckett’s work, but an artistic choice meant to breathe life into the 60-year-old play.

“They are still exactly the same characters… . We maintained every single aspect of the play’s integrity,” he said.

Beckett’s estate, though, is known for extreme vigilance over the body of work it controls and has sued before to prevent females from portraying male roles in the author’s plays, said James Goodwin, a professor of English at UCLA.

The fact that the estate would come after such a tiny theater “shows really how adamant they are about controlling Beckett’s vision,” he said.

While he called the estate’s decision to crack down on the Black Box Theater “heavy handed,” Goodwin said there’s little reason to introduce gender identity issues into a production of “Waiting for Godot.”

Born in Ireland in 1906, Beckett’s views on gender were by no means progressive, Goodwin said. The play is both “definitively male” and “anatomically specific,” he added, making the decision to cast females in key roles unusual.

“In some ways they’re kind of going out of their way to make an issue of gender. … I find it really more meaningful to engage the play in its own terms,” he said. “This kind of casting comes out of our social interests, but those aren’t the social interests of the play.”

In the play, considered a classic of the absurdist theater, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for an unknown entity, Godot. Pozzo is the tyrannical and mysterious character who abuses the other characters in the play, especially his slave named Lucky, whom he leads around on a rope.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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