Can we agree that Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play about hope and the will to keep on, belongs in the category of buddy films? Two guys hanging out at a crossroads, engaging in verbal tomfoolery, hat juggling and scrambling for food. Sometimes jolly, sometimes despairing, Larry Neumann Jr. and Michael Saad as Vladimir and Estragon are the love/hate buddies in this new version of Beckett’s masterpiece.
Dennis Začek, the veteran Chicago director, produces and directs this excellent production at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater. Even though one writer described Godot as having a “gloomy magic,” Beckett lards his script with plenty of laugh lines and vaudeville bits that counteract the angst of Didi and Gogo and their eternal wait. Truth be told, there are also a number of quasi-religious references, which might be considered ironic. (I prefer to think they are.) As in references to “our savior,” the Bible, and thieves being saved. Every time I see this play, I notice something new. (The play is always performed exactly as Beckett wrote it, according to the requirements of licensing the work.)
We meet Didi (Neumann) and Gogo (Saad) at the familiar scene described by Beckett: A country rod. A tree. Gogo is fighting to remove his boots and his foot problems are a theme of the play, as is Didi’s urinary problem. Gogo often sits or tries to sleep but Didi is on his feet throughout the play, never resting, never quiet. Their conversation makes clear they have been together for many years, decades or centuries. They have memories of the Eiffel Tower and grape harvesting on the Rhone. They discuss whether they should hang themselves from the tree, ponder whether they would have been better off alone, each one for himself. Gogo is perpetually hungry and the vegetables in Didi’s pockets (a carrot, a turnip, a radish) don’t do much to satisfy his hunger.
Two travelers arrive (as Beckett said, to break the monotony) at the crossroads. Pozzo (Steve Pickering) is a wealthy merchant, whipping his slave Lucky (Nima Rakhshanifar) to market to sell him. Lucky is roped to Pozzo, carrying a basket, a stool and other paraphernalia. Pozzo gives him sharp orders and sits down to enjoy his picnic lunch. Gogo leaps at the chance to gnaw on Pozzo’s discarded bones.
Didi and Gogo ask Pozzo what Lucky can do. He dances and thinks, replies Pozzo. Ordered to dance, Lucky does a few herky-jerky steps. Ordered to think, the heretofore mute Lucky launches into a long monologue that starts out as a scholarly, theological address and lapses into rapid-fire absurdity. (This set piece is a highlight of any production of Godot and Rakhshanifar does it justice.)
At the end of act one (and again at the end of the play), Boy (Cooper Hoyt) appears to tell Didi and Gogo that he has a message. “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.”
The moon comes out. Gogo says, “Well, shall we go?” And Didi responds, “Yes, let’s go.” They don’t move.
Začek’s direction of this minimalist masterpiece is spot on, never making a false move in translating this angst into a play for lovers of theater of the absurd. Both Neumann and Saad are masterful in their roles, Neumann the philosophical one, Saad clownish and agile. His carrot eating is a treat to watch. Pickering inexplicably plays Pozzo with a Southern accent, but then nothing is really explicable in this play and it works. Rakhshanifar’s Lucky is loyal to his cruel master, even after a turn of fate for Pozzo in act two.
Patrick Kerwin handles scenic and lighting design and Andre Pluess is responsible for music, including a moody modern track at the beginning of each act. Throughout most of the play, there was an imbalance in the voice levels and volume of Neumann and Saad. Neumann often seemed too loud, while Saad was noticeably softer in tone.
Costumes are by Isaac Jay Pineda; they are almost hobo shabby, but it did appear that Gogo’s coat looked a bit too good. A little more shredding, perhaps? Gogo’s red boxer shorts are a nice touch.
We have seen several productions of Godot in Chicago recently. The excellent Druid Theatre of Ireland brought a grand Irish cast to Chicago Shakespeare in 2018. We also liked Godot set on the Mexican border, staged by Tympanic Theatre in 2017. And we can’t forget Steppenwolf’s Pass Over, a 2017 play by Antoinette Nwandu, about two homeless men on the streets of a city something like Chicago. Pass Over is available on Amazon Video in a Lincoln Center Theaters production directed by Spike Lee.
Waiting for Godot runs about 2.5 hours plus an intermission and continues at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, through December 15. Tickets are $20-$40 for performances Wednesday-Sunday.