Waiting for Godot (Review)

Waiting and waiting and waiting

Jan 20, 2015 at 7:21 pm
Nick Rose and Bruce Cromer in Waiting for Godot
Nick Rose and Bruce Cromer in Waiting for Godot

Critic's Pick

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s “tragicomedy in two acts,” has bewildered many theatergoers since its premiere in 1953. At the same time, it has been revered as perhaps the greatest play of the 20th century. In his review of its first Broadway staging, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described the play as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” Today the play is considered the epitome of “theater of the absurd,” a worldview that suggests existence is meaningless and incomprehensible. Atkinson observed that it is “puzzling and convincing at the same time. Theatregoers can rail at it, but they cannot ignore it.” Indeed, it’s not been ignored for more than six decades. 
I suspect Cincinnatians who attend the play’s current production by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company might have similarly conflicted feelings. The achingly sad tale of futile existence is set on a desolate plain: Andrew J. Hungerford’s design features an almost empty stage, a wasted landscape with just one barren, bedraggled tree and a lumpish boulder, framed by black walls that force they eye back toward a narrow portal of empty sky. 
Two ragged bums, Vladimir (pragmatically and energetically if desperately played by Nick Rose) and Estragon (who Bruce Cromer has created as a weak-willed sad sack with ill-fitting boots), wait hopefully; anticipating that the imminent arrival of Godot will finally give their empty lives some meaning. Of course, he never shows up. 
Instead, the bombastic and cruel Pozzo (Jim Hopkins, looking like a mash-up of Col. Sanders and Big Daddy) struts onstage with his woebegone slave on a rope, the ironically named Lucky (Brent Vimtrup with a flowing white mane, a stoop-shouldered stance and a demeaning shuffle), who responds automatically and deferentially to his master’s ridiculous demands. The first act crescendos when the long-silent Lucky is ordered to think: He spews forth a rambling jumble of words that seem to be about existence but don’t hang together in any comprehensible way. After this contentious pair exits, a shepherd boy arrives with the news that Godot won’t be coming today; he might arrive tomorrow. 
The second act follows the same pattern, although matters are perhaps even more desperate: Pozzo re-enters blind but still blustering, and Lucky is more hapless than ever. The same boy brings the same message, suggesting that this cycle of emptiness and disappointment will repeat endlessly. Estragon bemoans their fate, while Vladimir repeatedly and valiantly tries to put a more positive spin on events. They argue over trivialities like an old married couple. But both seem to know their existence is hopeless: They even consider hanging themselves, despite the lack of rope and the silliness of a frail tree that could surely serve their purpose. 
This might sound tedious, and that’s part of Beckett’s point. But his pithy, often-comic writing makes this script a tremendous vehicle for actors. Drawing upon Cincy Shakes’ company of performers, director Brian Isaac Phillips has staged a Godot that honors Beckett’s artful language (the play was originally written in French) and “tragically comic” circumstances. Each actor plays a comic type, but performances are nuanced, personalized and constantly engaging. As thoughtfully provocative as Beckett’s script is, it’s also full of opportunities for flat-out slapstick and physical humor, something Cromer is especially good at — as he wrestles with his boot to begin the show or drops his pants at a particularly somber moment. 
In its first appearance on Broadway, Estragon was played by Bert Lahr (remembered as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz); in subsequent productions Robin Williams, John Goodman and Ian McKellan have filled that role. Over the years Steve Martin, Nathan Lane and Patrick Stewart have portrayed Vladimir. In the fall of 2013 on Broadway, Stewart and McKellan, stars of the action-packed X-Men films as well as epic fantasies including Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, dazzled audiences after doing the same in London. At Cincy Shakes, Cromer and Rose, two local marquee actors, are wonderfully paired. (They recently performed in A Christmas Carol at the Cincinnati Playhouse, with Rose understudying Cromer as Ebenezer Scrooge.) 
Rose and Cromer wholly capture the humor and pathos of this play about the futility of existence, threaded with miniscule glimmers of hope against hope (a few leaves appear on the barren tree) — perhaps the essence of human nature. The play’s final lines are “Shall we go?” “Let’s go.” Where they’re headed we’re left to fill in. Probably more days like the two we’ve witnessed — and yet they seem resolved to carry on. 

WAITING FOR GODOT, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Feb. 7.