Waiting for Godot is generally considered a comedy. Samuel Beckett himself called this, his most famous play, a “tragicomedy.” But its reputation as an important, monumental piece of art can have a way of choking off the laughs. I’ve seen tedious productions that left me scratching my head and asking “What’s so funny?”
If the very name “Godot” strikes fear into your theatergoing heart, don’t worry. Curio Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot is miles removed from the ponderous piece you had to struggle through back in high school. Director Dan Hodge has fashioned a fresh rendering of Godot. The result is a bouncy and surprisingly raucous take on the Existentialist classic in which Beckett asks big questions and (artfully) avoids big answers.
What’s different this time? Start with Paul Kuhn’s in-the-round set design, which is far removed from the play’s conventions. Beckett’s script mentions that a bare tree should be on the stage, but Kuhn has gone all out, providing a huge metal-and-muslin palm tree that dominates the space. Torn sheets wrap around the metallic trunk and hang between the rubber tubes that serve as branches. The sheets serve as fronds, providing shade for the stage – and for most of the audience, too.
If this is a palm tree, then are we on a desert island? Are the characters castaways? A hard, slate-like surface covers the playing area. This doesn’t resemble the barren wasteland we normally associate with Godot. It’s a sign that we’ll be seeing Godot in a new way.
In addition to designing the set, Kuhn acts in the play too, playing Estragon opposite Brian McCann as Vladimir. They’re two hapless tramps waiting in vain for the mysterious Godot to make his entrance. Why are they waiting? And why are they doing it every day? They search in vain for the answers, but even though they don’t find them, that doesn’t mean they’re going to give up waiting.
McCann’s Vladimir is fussy and flamboyant, facing the world with a sour expression. Kuhn’s Estragon has a more quizzical look, as he keeps trying to discover the reason they’re waiting, though Vladimir takes it for granted. But despite their differences, they make a terrific team, and they come off as devoted friends. (They even share a few quick kisses in this production, though nothing really gets made of that.)
Beckett peppers the script with references to Laurel and Hardy: Vladimir and Estragon wear derbies like their forebears, and Vladimir even uses some of Hardy’s catchphrases (such as “I have nothing to say”). But those allusions have rarely seemed as strong as they do here, thanks in part to McCann and Kuhn’s exceptional comedic skills. These guys seem like they’ve been vaudeville partners for years. Little bits of stage business – including some audience interaction – have been added. They enhance the play’s humor and anarchic spirit, but without distracting from the play’s purpose. One gag, in which Estragon slips out of Vladimir’s embrace in an unexpected way, is a gem of physical comedy.
Robert DaPonte arrives halfway through Act One as Pozzo, an imperious loudmouth determined to dominate the proceedings. Beaming with knowing smugness and condescension, DaPonte gives the production a blast of energy, whether he’s shouting with juvenile glee or mocking Kuhn’s Philly accent (“put down his baaaags”). Harry Slack, as Pozzo’s slave Lucky, is so worn down by his master’s oppression that he’s hunched over and barely able to open his eyes. Three youngsters (Judy Gallagher, Liam Swiggard, and Isabella Walls) alternate in the remaining role of a messenger boy.
Aetna Gallagher’s costumes provide more than just a pair of derbies. Vladimir’s tasteful black suit contrasts pointedly with Estragon’s sloppier ensemble, with its tan slacks and just-starting-to-fray brown jacket. Pozzo shows off his elite status by wearing a formal ensemble (including tails, top hat and red vest) that wouldn’t be out of place on a circus ringmaster. Conversely Lucky’s low position is revealed by his mishmash of clothing styles.
Tim Martin’s lighting extends into the audience, accommodating the actors’ occasional excursions among the spectators. Kyle Yackoski’s sound design uses rustling wind and low whispers to create a subtly unsettling atmosphere.
Beckett purists might blanch at the few minor liberties in staging that Hodge and his crew have taken. And with more time focusing on comedy, there’s less time available to speculate about what it all means. But if Curio’s production doesn’t quite strike the perfect blend between its comedic and philosophical sides, it still ends up being a more enjoyable production of Godot than any I’ve seen.
Hodge’s reshaped vision of Waiting for Godot is more concerned with pratfalls than profundity. But that’s OK by me. I found Curio’s production delightful. After all, if I’m going to spend eternity waiting for a mysterious, Godlike figure, I’d like to do it with a smile on my face.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
Waiting for Godot plays through March 4, 2017 at Curio Theatre Company, performing at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community – 4740 Baltimore Avenue in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 525-1350, or purchase them online.