Funny thing about Waiting for Godot: although Theatre for a New Audience’s production is my fifth Godot in 17 years, I always feel like I’m hearing it for the first time. Mind you, certain bits have always stuck: Estragon’s irksome boot, Pozzo’s “They give birth astride of a grave,” Lucky’s logorrheic “think,” the trading of insults that ends in the knockout “Crritic!” But a high percentage of the banter and action drifts past me like fog in twilight. Samuel Beckett’s dialogue is so loose and improvisatory-seeming, deeply meaningful yet thrown away, it’s easy to keep rediscovering moments at a fresh angle in a new light. Perhaps I’m also not giving credit where it’s due: as Estragon and Vladmir, Michael Shannon and Paul Sparks blend their idiosyncratic styles so ingeniously with the text, they give it uncommon clarity.
Shamblin’ Shannon and Blazing Sparks: the powerhouse duo we’ve waited decades to see sharing the spotlight as Beckett’s tramps, threadbare in trousers and spirit. In what might be a post-apocalyptic neverwhere, they dawdle and quarrel and peevishly await one Godot (O’God?), who will never arrive. Estragon wrestles with his painful boot, trying to free it from his smelly foot; Vladimir periodically races offstage to urinate (bad kidneys). Sound designer Palmer Hefferan creates thin piddling in a shallow metal receptacle. I saw a hubcap, since director Arin Arbus and scenic designer Riccardo Hernández translate the “country road” stage direction into a U.S. highway; the two men stalk up and down asphalt and across yellow median stripes looking for all the world like Depression-era hobos who lost their bindles at dice.They balance marvelously. Shannon, the glowering hulk, works his jaw like he’s chewing bleak thoughts as he limp-shuffles about on one shoe. Sparks meets Shannon’s phlegmatic dourness with a concertina of squawks and erratic, jerky moves, as if Vladimir were suffering from undiagnosed Tourette’s. Although these comrades at the end of the world share more qualities than not, Estragon (nicknamed Gogo) is generally the earthier one and Vladimir (a.k.a. Didi) the loquacious dandy. Vladimir sports a limp little pocket square as a gesture toward civilized days. When the two are joined by the traveling aristocrat-clown Pozzo (Ajay Naidu), leading his slobbering slave Lucky (Jeff Biehl) by a rope tied around his neck, the world of Godot widens to consider human bondage and inequality, compassion and its reward. When Estragon tries to wipe away Lucky’s tears, he gets a kick in the shins for his concern.
Arbus and her actors achieve a dynamic and even heartfelt production of a classic that can easily grow tedious or mechanical. Besides the crackling rapport between Shannon and Sparks, the wraithlike Biehl does wonders with Lucky’s bonkers peroration, a vomit of pseudo-academic gibberish about God and wasting and, um, tennis. This was the first time I saw a performer play the internal logic of the speech, which spirals into demented cries about “the skull in Connemara!” Pozzo traditionally goes to an actor of girth and stature who can scale operatic heights of pomposity but also wither into humiliated abjection. Naidu is on the shorter side, so his transatlantic-accented Pozzo has something of Napoleon about him. He’s enjoyably hammy, but Arbus lets the pacing flag a bit with Pozzo’s reappearance in the second act. Even the walk-on role of the Boy, Godot’s guileless messenger, is played with sensitivity and charm by Toussaint Francois Battiste. When Estragon flies at the Boy in anger upon hearing that Godot won’t come today, the violence of Shannon’s attack the sweetness of the young actor leant the moment a surprising edge of ugliness and desperation.It’s hard to say anything new about a play as simultaneously open and inscrutable as Godot. Beckett’s subject is the inner life of . . . life. Beyond allegory, fable, or parable, the play is an extended jig at the edge of the pit, a cosmic vaudeville on life and death and the infinite brevity between the two. Do we spend that instant of gleaming light (born over a grave, right?) fighting and blaming, enslaving and exploiting? Or do we forgive? Cain and Abel is a prominent thread in the text, the primal myth of fraternal treachery. When Vladimir instructs the Boy, “Tell [Godot] that you saw me,” Sparks glanced guiltily at Shannon, and I saw the betrayal for the first time. So there. Saw something new. I’m grateful to this keen director and her phenomenal actors—and promise not to forget.