With another storm season brewing in the Gulf Coast and the Katrina crisis getting upstaged by newer disasters, there are few places in America that seem more stranded than New Orleans. If Estragon and Vladimir, the hapless tramps in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” were killing time in the real world, they might very well be doing so in Louisiana. So when the Classical Theater of Harlem begins its revival with Gogo clambering onto the roof of a submerged house and Didi sloshing toward him through a pool of water, the production immediately finds a contemporary parallel for the play’s existential suspension of time.
Beckett purists might blanch at the playwright’s masterpiece being transferred from a lonely road to a flooded wasteland, but despite its obvious link to current events, the production’s swimming pool set is a valid interpretation. If anything, it makes the characters, who pass infinite time as they wait for a man who never arrives, seem even more isolated. If Godot isn’t coming by land to provide them with some kind of purpose, then he’s even less likely to paddle across a pond.
The setting also underscores the futility of Gogo and Didi’s showmanship. J. Kyle Manzay and Wendell Pierce are a well-oiled vaudeville machine as they turn their musings on suicide into stage patter and a quarrel over the last of the food supply into a juggling bit with radishes.
Well-etched perfs make it clear that Estragon would like to end this charade — preferring instead to dream of a better world — while Vladimir needs the artifice of performing to give his day meaning. Pierce’s Didi can’t seem to help himself as he beats out a tune on his pants leg or uses some funny accent, but his furrowed face tell us that his bits aren’t all that distracting from the ceaseless, useless waiting.
Is all life a performance like theirs? Are we all just dancing faster to distract ourselves from the fear that nothing we do has meaning? That’s certainly the implication of director Christopher McElroen’s boldest gestures. Like so many previous helmers at CTH — who have staged metatheatrical milestones like “The Blacks” and “Funnyhouse of a Negro” — he prods the porous skin between theater and reality.
For instance, when the Boy (Tanner Rich) closes act one with his message that Godot isn’t coming, he stands up from the audience. The implication is either that we’re superior to the tramps because they have to perform for us, or we’re just like them because we’re all part of the same endless play. Or both.
Refreshingly, this production makes these heady assertions without losing its entertainment value. The antics between the tramps are genuinely funny, and there’s a satisfying pathos in watching Billy Eugene Jones’ hangdog face as he plays Lucky, the spirit-broken slave who could quit his bondage to oafish Pozzo (Chris McKinney) but never does. Jones’ body may droop, but his stillness is so controlled that he’s fascinating. And when Lucky bursts into his famous, raging speech, the actors’ mix of fear and confusion explodes like a tour de force.
The only thing askew is Jones’ speedy delivery. He rushes Lucky’s words together so that we’re mostly struck by the sound of his speech rather than its content. This problem hounds Manzay and Pierce as well. They often become so enamored with the pacing of their huckster delivery that they don’t communicate the sense of what they’re saying. Beckett did not choose his words lightly, and this production would run even deeper by being more careful in articulating them.
The blurred dialogue occasionally invites the mind to wander, though McElroen and company always regain focus. Overall, they’ve offered an arresting vision of “Waiting for Godot” that resonates even after the curtain call. When the actors have bowed, Gogo and Didi return to their rooftop in the water. Silent and sitting, they stare at the sky while a thin white curtain slides in front of them. Their play continues, even as we step outside and resume performing ours.