Irish and full of ennui (definitely strong choices for this show), the Waiting for Godot being put on now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh space is a good fit for both curious first-timers and old friends who never tire of two-hour stories about “nothing.”
Let’s rip the Band-Aid off: Theatre’s most wickedly absent, possibly nonexistent, title character remains wickedly absent — and possibly nonexistent. The Galway-based Druid ensemble’s staging is not some radical new reading where the veil lifts and all is made right for poor Vladimir and Estragon. You come for the waiting, you stay for the yet more waiting.
Samuel Beckett’s most famous play enjoys flirting with different interpretations, but, never satisfied with just one, its eyes keep wandering the dance floor, hunting for its next partner. Does Godot represent god? Death? Some mirage of human camaraderie or capitalistic opportunity? In response to such questions, the show only bats its lashes, bites its lower lip, and says, “…maybe.” But after all these years, Godot has become such a prestige piece that the best meaning might actually be that it’s about itself. Consider this oft-repeated bit of dialogue between the hapless Gogo and Didi:
Estragon: Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Now imagine that Vladimir replies not “we’re waiting for Godot” but in fact “we’re Waiting for Godot.” They can’t leave, advance, or get what they’re after … because they are this ridiculous, infamous fucking play. They are doomed to stay; we are doomed to watch. On our end, at least, there are worse destinies.
As directed by Garry Hynes, Godot, which is going on now until May 20, comes with a lot of confidence and courage in its own mercurial convictions. It isn’t trying to tell every version — be open to every interpretation — but who could? As Didi and Gogo, Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan have an excellent rapport, and they do subtle work showing growth and change. The tragedy of the ending falls heavily on their shoulders. In working with Beckett’s untamable dialogue, however, Rea and Monaghan don’t quite spin all the straw into gold. They’re solid at the slapstick and the eruptions of despair, but struggle a little with the middle distance, trying to convey boredom without spreading it to the audience. Rory Nolan’s Pozzo and Garrett Lombard’s Lucky bring evasive flights of humanity to the proceedings; indeed all four actors never stop playing men in order to try to play symbols.
Francis O’Connor’s set is pretty damn close to perfect, unfolded like a open greeting card from a post-apocalyptic hellscape. If the child from The Road had time for drawing, he might have sketched this smoothed, egg-like rock and menacing branch of a tree — made from nails, it claws up and out, looking like an evil strand of hair, or a vein. Equally stark are James F. Ingalls’s lights, though they bring warmth, too, even when switched to a bright-blue night.
The best nonsense stories kick ass. Give me The Bald Soprano. Give me “The Jabberwocky.” Give me Aqua Teen Hunger Force — and at its most batshit, if you would. Godot, the undisputed masterpiece of Theatre of the Absurd, is in any many ways the center of that universe. Smaller nonsense orbits its massive gravity.
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.