On this, the seventieth anniversary year of the signature work of Nobel Prize winning author Samuel Beckett, a play in which (as one Beckett scholar famously put it) “nothing happens, twice,” Paul Sparks and Michael Shannon, friends in real life and frequent co-stars, portray the latest Didi and Gogo whom I’ve seen waiting for Godot, joining the haunted clowns Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane, the great Irish bums Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy, the knighted vaudevillians Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, the pandemic lockdown hibernates Ethan Hawke and John Leguizamo. I’ll throw in the urban street dwellers Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, who portrayed Moses and Kitch in “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s play heavily inspired by Waiting for Godot.
In the new Theater for a New Audience production of “Waiting for Godot,” the Oklahoma-born Sparks and the Kentucky-born Shannon portray Didi and Gogo convincingly as Midwestern hobos, Sparks nearly unrecognizable beneath a bushy beard. They look like characters from “Grapes of Wrath.” This is probably not what Beckett had in mind: The play was originally written in French, and Didi talks about the two of them climbing the Eiffel Tower. Still, the performers make their characters feel like real people; not easy. Unfortunately, real people are sometimes dull.
I don’t doubt that these two fine actors have worked diligently to nail each beat, backed by director Arin Arbus, essaying Beckett for the first time with the aid of a movement consultant, a fight director, even the eminent Bill Irwin as creative consultant. There are several small moments that reveal a connection between the two actors that feels genuine.
There’s also a subtle richness to the illogic at any moment that’s, yes, humorous (often gallows humor), but perhaps more resonant when the characters are more realistic. At one point, when Didi and Gogo contemplate hanging themselves from the lone scrawny tree, Gogo urges Did to go first, because he’s heavier, so if the bough breaks, they’ll know that it wouldn’t kill either of them. But if Estragon goes first, it might still be light enough for the bough not to break, and then Vladimir would be alone.
Vladimir: I hadn’t thought of that.
Estragon: If it hangs you it’ll hang anything.
Vladimir: But am I heavier than you?
Estragon: So you tell me. I don’t know. There’s an even chance. Or nearly
They decide not to try, and instead wait for Godot; “see what he says.”
On the other hand, although we know that Beckett wrote what he would eventually call his “tragicomedy” after spending the war years in the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, and at the onset of the age of anxiety over the threat of nuclear annihilation., the writer was also known to be influenced by vaudeville and the film comedies of the silent era. He put several slapstick routines in the play. It’s surely not a coincidence that some of the greatest comic actors of succeeding generations have taken on the roles: Bert Lahr (better known as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz) was the original Estragon on Broadway in 1956, Steve Martin and Robin Williams were Didi and Gogo Off-Broadway in 1988; Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane (as I mentioned) in 2009.
So blame it on my conditioning, but these latest Didi and Gogo did not rivet my attention until some of those slapstick routines kicked in, mostly in Act II, most memorably when they juggle three hats on their two heads, and when four of the characters all collapse on one another.
Toussaint Francois Battiste is adorable as the timid little boy(s) delivering a disappointing message from Godot, Jeff Biehl does justice to Lucky’s monologue, one of the most challenging in all of theater, and Ajay Naidu is suitably blustery as Pozzo; neither Pozzo nor Lucky are burdened with the challenge of attempting naturalistic performances, since a whip-yielding slave-master and his usually-mute, roped slave aren’t the kind of characters you might meet on the street, although Didi and Gogo do meet them on the road.
The road in this production, courtesy of set designer Riccardo Hernandez, is a long, narrow tar-topped two-lane highway that runs between the audience on either side, with little for us to look at beside the solid yellow double line down the middle, and the world’s most anemic tree, for the nearly three hour trip to nowhere.
Waiting for Godot
Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center through December 3. Extended to Dec 17
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $97 to $132. Full-time students and people 30 and under: $20
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Arin Arbus
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Chris Akerlind, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, choreographed by Byron Easley, movement consultant Marcia Polas, creative consultant Bill Irwin, voice director Andrew Wade, properties supervisor Jon Knust, dramaturg Jonathan Kalb, fight director J. David Brimmer
Cast: Michael Shannon as Estragon, Paul Sparks as Vladimir, Toussaint Francois Battiste as the boy, Jeff Biehl as Lucky, Ajay Naidu as Pozzo
Photos by Gerry Goodstein and Hollis King