Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Feb. 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I went to Court Theatre’s “Waiting for Godot” with a certain amount of skepticism. Having seen Samuel Beckett’s most famous play at least ten times, I wondered how director Ron OJ Parson and his cast could illuminate it in any meaningful way, even though they are topnotch artists.
In truth, I’ve never been a huge fan of “Godot,” even though I understand why it’s hailed as a masterpiece. The idea of staging what two tramps do and say for more than two-and-a-half hours while waiting around for the arrival of a mysterious figure who never shows up and whose name (in English, at least) conjures up God must have seemed stunning in the early 1950s when the play was first produced, but we’ve become used to plotless dramas in which characters talk about this and that and nothing happens. Sure, Beckett was better than most at revealing the existential angst of the human condition, but his work also was, and is, frustratingly enigmatic.
Court’s production takes the frustration out of the equation and infuses the situation with humor and genuine humanity. The fact that the ensemble is African American adds a dimension, but Parson doesn’t indulge in any major revisionism.
Instead, he mines what’s already there, especially the vaudeville and clowning elements. The bowler hat routine is handled with dexterity, as is the issue of Estragon’s ill-fitting boots. The second-act sequence in which the bully Pozzo, now blind, falls and can’t get up becomes a very extended slapstick routine, with Vladimir and then Estragon falling and rolling around with him in their bumbling attempts to help. More than that, Vladimir’s deliberations on whether or not to bother—as Pozzo lies on the ground calling out—are turned into a powerful direct address to the audience, enhancing the evening’s self-conscious theatricality and the contemporary relevance of his speech about human responsibility.
The director also introduces bits of apropos stage business. When Vladimir, a.k.a. Didi, rifles through his pockets trying to find a carrot for Estragon, a.k,a. Gogo, dozens of scraps of paper on which he’s written notes come tumbling out. This elicits a giggle from the audience but also reflects Didi’s more intellectual inclinations. He’s one who remembers what happens from one moment to the next and philosophizes about it. At one point, he even pulls out a little note pad to jot down thoughts about Pozzo and Lucky.
Parson’s take on Lucky, brought to life by Anthony Lee Irons, epitomizes the show’s physicality and nod to ethnicity. The most graceful Lucky I’ve ever seen, Irons moves like a dancer each time he puts down his bags to do a menial task for Pozzo, then picks them up again. At the same time, his body language and facial expressions exude intense resentment and hatred of his cruel master. One of the witty and telling touches is that the dance Pozzo orders Lucky to do, and calls a deterioration of his former abilities, includes some moon walking.
A.C. Smith makes a perfect Pozzo with his bulk, authoritarian bluster, and booming voice. He first appears dressed a bit like a 19th-century gentleman with a brocade vest and a whip dangling out of his pocket; the hapless Lucky goes before him like a beast of burden tethered with a rope around his neck. As he sits to enjoy his picnic, smoke his pipe, and pontificate, we sort of share Gogo and Didi’s sense
that at least this is passing the time coupled with a combination of fascination, impatience and indignation.
The evening, though, really belongs to Gogo and Didi, and I can’t imagine a more compelling pair than Alfred H. Wilson and Allen Gilmore The older, scruffier, bearded Wilson seems to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders as Gogo, recalling little except that he was beaten the night before. He struggles to get a grip on any sense of time, reinforcing one of the strains of a life spent waiting.
Didi is ostensibly more optimistic and tries harder to keep the demons at bay. Gilmore’s multifaceted performance, the best I’ve seen him give, is simultaneously funny and sad, hopeful and despairing. The range is apparent in everything, even the different ways he treats the boy (Alex Henderson, alternating with Oscar Vasquez III) who turns up at the end of each act to say that Mr. Godot won’t be coming today but will surely come tomorrow.
Gilmore also makes us grasp what binds these men together, even though they repeatedly talk about separating. At the beginning of the second act, Didi awakes sitting at the base of the tree and thinks Gogo is gone. He gets up, shields his eyes looking for his friend in the distance from several points on stage, and when he doesn’t see him, starts running around becoming increasingly frantic. It’s an extraordinary panic attack made palpable by Gilmore (and the director), and its marked contrast to how Didi behaves when Gogo does reappear beautifully underscores their relationship.
Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design is a departure from the norm, which calls for the tree and a road but little else. The set here makes me think of a street corner in an abandoned neighborhood, with patches of worn grass separated by sidewalk and surrounded by a curb. The bare tree is somewhat more substantial than usual, and the sky shades from stormy gray to moon-suffused charcoal with the help of Lee Keenan’s lighting. Nan Cibula-Jenkens’ costumes subtly capture the characters.
Court has been having a very good season, and it certainly continues with this “Waiting for Godot.”