Saturday, February 8, 2014

Waiting's Not So Bad When the Company's This Good

Review: Waiting for Godot

Professor X and Magneto are currently demonstrating another of their mutant powers, the ability to breath new life into a theatrical stalwart.

Waiting for Godot is a tricky play no matter how you look at it.  Samuel Beckett's absurdist comedy is wholly unconcerned with the trappings of conventional theatre, disregarding plot and significant character development for what on the surface appears to be inane babble.  And while the characters occasionally stumble across a profound thought, the play tends to skim over the implications of said thought with nary a backward glance.  It asks questions it doesn't even attempt to answer, and with no obvious political or philosophical agenda the entire thing is ultimately left up to audience interpretation.  It is not a play for everyone, but those who are interested will find much to enjoy about the finely staged revival currently playing the Cort Theatre, starring theatrical icons Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in roles they seem born to play.

The play's setup finds Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart) waiting for the mysterious Godot next to a tree in the middle of an unspecified wasteland.  The pair can't seem to remember much about Godot or why they are waiting for him, but both are convinced (at least initially) that he is indeed coming and they must meet him.  During their wait they play games, bicker, and tease one another to pass the time, eventually getting interrupted by Pazzo (Shuler Hensley) and his servant/slave Lucky (Billy Crudup).  And that's about it.  We never learn much more about the characters' backgrounds or what brings them to this tree in the middle of nowhere; we just watch them interact, with often comical results.  But as the waiting stretches on for an indeterminate amount of time, Estragon and Vladimir begin to question everything about their existence, which in turn forces the audience to reflect upon their lives as well.

Director Sean Matthias has staged the play with an extraordinary amount of sensitivity, and does an excellent job of keeping his own views out of the equation.  Matthias simply presents the play as written, with enough specificity to make all the little details stand out without indicating that some of those details are more important than others.  Normally you would look for a director to have a unique take on the material, something to say about it (especially with material as well worn as Godot), but in this case the lack of any attempt to impose some kind of logical order on the moment to moment structure works in the play's favor, resulting in an intensely personal experience for each audience member.  Five people could see the same performance and come away with five entirely different interpretations about what the work is about, which in this case is the entire appeal of the play. Matthias must be commended for fostering that kind of atmosphere in his production.

Of course, he is aided and abetted by the enormous talent and chemistry of his two leading men.  Stewart and McKellen, known for their exhaustive stage and film credits, are so assured in their craft that it looks as natural and effortless as breathing.  The back and forth dynamic between Estragon and Vladimir forms the basis of the entire play, and the actors' well-documented affection for one another translates into stage magic.  The pair employs razor sharp comic timing to elicit belly laugh after belly laugh from the audience, with Stewart's rational straight man acting as the perfect foil to McKellen's impulse-driven clown.  Their expert understanding of the art of speaking finds music in the play's sparse dialogue, even when that dialogue amounts to fart jokes and bawdy humor.  Like two expert tennis players, these old hands bat jokes back and forth with an intoxicatingly precise rhythm and physicality that represents the pinnacle of a lifetime of honing their talents.

It is extremely unfortunate that Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup have to come and ruin the interplay between these two theatrical giants with their histrionics, although whether the fault lies with the actors, the direction, or the writing is difficult to discern.  One thing that almost certainly originates from Hensley is the misguided choice to have Pazzo speak in a Foghorn Leghorn-esque drawl, causing the character to always sound like he's yelling and making Hensley's performance at best ponderous and at worst insufferable.  Crudup fares better as Lucky, although his wild physicality results in most of his big monologue being incomprehensible.  This moment has the dubious distinction of being the one point in the play where the production seems to deem the text unimportant, despite giving equal weight to every other line of dialogue, no matter how inane.  It is a relief when Hensley and Crudup leave the stage towards the end of Act I, and thankfully their second act appearance is much briefer.

There is an odd beauty in the sparse, vaguely apocalyptic production design, including Stephen Brimson Lewis' crumbling set and tattered costumes.  For all the design's simplicity, it never becomes boring to look at, which is a testament to the artistry of Lewis' work and Matthias' clever staging.  Even the lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski is kept to a minimum, maintaining the production's focus on the actors, the text, and subtle suggestion rather than strict realism.

Even if Waiting for Godot weren't such an important part of the theatrical canon, this production would be notable for the chance to see the indisputably great Stewart and McKellen work their magic together onstage.  McKellen in particular has said that this will probably be his last Broadway appearance, so any fans of the British thespian have extra incentive to catch this limited-run production before it closes in March.  Godot isn't for everyone, but this production is the most accessible and overall well-acted ones we're likely to see for some time.

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