Though its title has entered the language and its setup is essential knowledge to any student of literature, there’s nothing trite or easily dismissible about “Waiting for Godot” a half-century after it first startled theatergoers. Samuel Beckett’s unsettling vision receives exquisite, pitch-perfect treatment in this production by the Gate Theater of Dublin. Its too-brief stand in L.A. caps a monthlong Stateside tour.
The production’s genesis was the Gate’s 1991 Beckett Festival, which subsequently visited New York and London. Artistic director Michael Colgan has also spearheaded the Beckett on Film project, which will include the current cast in its celluloid “Godot” — a golden opportunity for those not fortunate enough to see this version on the boards.
Louis le Brocquy’s stark set and costumes, in a palette of grays and ochers, embody the pared-down, existential beauty of Beckett’s language, the mood of emptiness and aching heightened by Rupert Murray’s eloquent lighting design, with its bruised, rust-colored sky and hopefully rising moon. The sad tree that provokes Vladimir and Estragon’s comical contemplation of suicide stands like a damaged cross or a beckoning, skeletal figure regarding the two tramps’ endless waiting.
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Like two silent-film clowns without a script, Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy’s protagonists wrestle with questions of faith and meaning with bedraggled balletic grace and heartbreaking humor. McGovern’s indefatigable Vladimir, aka Didi, vainly enforces cheer while Murphy’s weary Estragon (Gogo), with his broken gait, can’t help doubting. They circle about each other devising time-filling gambits, until the welcome arrival of Pozzo (Alan Stanford) and his tethered slave, Lucky (Stephen Brennan), who provide a horrifying pantomime of degradation and delusion.
Stanford’s Pozzo is a blustering, English aristocrat — an interesting choice, given the Irishness of Didi and Gogo. With his stooped shuffle and silent stares, Brennan’s Lucky seems barely alive, until he delivers the play’s one monologue, a futile conjuration, with breathtaking musicality. His speech may baffle and torment his listeners, but it does pass the time.
There’s a terrible poignancy in Pozzo and Brennan’s “act” — especially when they reappear, their roles essentially reversed. The former is now blind, and the latter, struck dumb, lovingly closes his master’s fingers around the whip. A third distraction arrives in the form of the Boy (Dan Colley), pale blond and bathed in white light like an angelic messenger from the never-glimpsed Godot. The ever-resourceful Didi clutches to this blank, terrified figure as a sign of hope, ready to renew the cycle of expectation.
Director Walter D. Asmus, who worked with Beckett, has struck just the right balance of pathos, wit and absurdity in his seasoned cast. Without lapsing into the maudlin, the production conveys the two tramps’ quiet, awed sense of defeat in the play’s final moments. “There’s no lack of void,” Gogo observes, and Didi has reached a dark understanding of his constant need to fill it.
This “Godot” honors the playwright’s bone-clean poetry as it taps into painful truths about the illusions that sustain us, the ways we acclimate ourselves to the rarely relieved emptiness. There may be, as Pozzo claims, a fixed amount of tears and laughter in the world, but we self-dramatize anyway, with never-ending ingenuity, as though forging through unknown territory. And somehow we manage throughout to keep our appointments with shadowy figures, or gods, who may never show.