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In PW Downspace, a ‘Godot’ worth waiting for

Inventive set design, strong performances energize Beckett’s oft-done post-war classic

The occupants of Samuel Beckett’s  theater of the absurd — dithering and defunct ­— vacillate in and out of uncertainty. They search in vain  for validation and reprieve. 

A new production of his juggernaut “Waiting for Godot,” directed by Patrick Madden ’15, opens tonight in the Production Workshop Downspace. Naturally, the play’s reputation precedes it. Since its 1953 premiere in an obscure French theater, “Waiting for Godot” has become a bedrock of post-war literature. Famously described by literary critic Vivian Mercier as “a play in which nothing happens, twice,” the show is currently running on Broadway in a production starring Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart.

For such a widely performed work, Madden’s interpretation feels distinctly fresh. Swinging from idealistic to cynical,  arrogant to self-loathing, Vladimir, Estragon and friends supply more than  sinister humor. They lend even the most pedantic exchanges a chilling accessibility. Audiences will experience the uncanny sensation that they’ve been here before.

The entirety of the two-act play unfolds by a tree on the country roadside. Haunting and haunted, Sam Keamy-Minor’s ’16 set design is one of the most compelling aspects of the production.

The stage, an elongated platform covered with sand, adds an element of materiality to the set. The sand itself functions as something of a prop, rising in acrid dust clouds in moments of commotion and trickling out from sleeves and pockets as if part of an hourglass. In one corner, the leafless and skeletal tree leans a bit off-kilter, warped. The haphazard cinderblock pile in the opposite corner, a manmade replacement for the “low mound” in Beckett’s script, evokes an unfinished construction project, the remnants of progress.

Sound designer Ursula Raasted ’14 amplifies this tension by weaving in tuneless ambient music at key moments. The noises are ancestral, primordial: the beating of a tribal drum, a keening like an ancient whale song.

Fortunately, the actors’ lively interpretation of their roles energizes even the bleakest moments. Samuel Lanier ’15.5 provides a well-timed dose of comic relief as Pozzo, swaggering onstage with the glib egomania of a political fat cat. Even Benjamin Silver’s ’17  supporting role as Boy feels more three-dimensional than the enigmatic role would suggest. But perhaps the climactic moment of the play is Fletcher Bell’s ’16 volcanic recitation of Lucky’s monologue. His delivery is animated and maniacal, unraveling exponentially toward some asymptotic finale.

The rapport between Estragon and Vladimir, played respectively by Vincent Tomasino ’14 and Skylar Fox ’15, seems unlikely at first, even awkward. But as their purgatorial world unfolds, the audience will begin to access the symbiosis between Estragon’s scruffy indolence and Vladimir’s erudite neurosis. Like an old married couple, they prattle nonsensically about vague nothings, cycle through vaudeville routines and elaborate handshakes. All of this while they wait and wait and wait. They transition from jesters to theorists with startling versatility and control.

Nothing happens, but it will definitely pass the time.

‘Waiting for Godot’ runs tonight at 8 p.m., tomorrow at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., Sunday at 8 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m in the PW Downspace.

Video by Henry Chaisson, Katie Cusumano and Andrew Smyth.


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