Review: A ‘Waiting for Godot’ as Comically Futile as a Looney Tune (New York Times)
Have you ever paused to consider the spiritual and physical affinities between the desolate universe of Samuel Beckett and the wacky world of vintage Warner Brothers cartoons? Me neither. Or at least not until I saw the Druid Theater’s production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” part of the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center.
Watching Garry Hynes’s highly stylized and very funny staging of this classic of modern literature — which opened over the weekend at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College in Manhattan — I found myself transported to Saturday mornings with Looney Tunes from my childhood. Little did I know then, as I chuckled over the frantic antics of Daffy and Bugs and company, that I was taking an extended course in existential futility.
Just think about these elements, for example: An unchanging landscape (often with a boulder and a tree or two) that its exasperated denizens keep returning to no matter how far they think they’ve wandered or how hard they’ve run; badly battered bodies, subjected to random and whimsical acts of violence, that rebel against their owner’s commands; and the sense that no matter how hard and cruel the day has been, those who lived through it are ready to begin the same old punishing routine the next morning.
Then there’s the suspicion, which freezes into certainty, that those who work so ardently to achieve their elusive goals will never, ever be rewarded: not Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of the fleet Road Runner, nor Sylvester the Cat, hungry eyes forever trained on the unreachable Tweety Bird. They may be determined and industrious, these poor souls, but their existences are nothing but waiting games.
Such, too, are the lives of Vladimir and Estragon of “Godot” — Didi and Gogo to their friends, who would appear to be limited to each other. While scholars have long noted the vaudevillian and music-hall-clown nature of these characters, the improbably elastic pair of Aaron Monaghan (Gogo) and Marty Rea (Didi) float them into the stratosphere of the Looney Tunes menagerie.
This means, for starters, that they are funny simply to look at, these two quarrelsome, symbiotically bonded tramps, in their dusty bowler hats and shredded boots. Most of Mr. Rea’s body, thin and towering, is taken up by his legs. The shorter Mr. Monaghan has the look of someone who has been smushed into concentrated shape by a clothing press. (Give credit to Francis O’Connor’s shape-defining costumes.)
Frozen in tableau against Mr. O’Connor’s exquisitely barren set, with its lone tree and single, time-smoothed boulder, they are Mutt and Jeff in limbo. Once they start to move, they seem to have been drawn into being by some diabolical animator.
Watch Mr. Rea’s legs shoot out at perpendicular angles, or Mr. Monaghan spring into the air from a sitting position. When they scan the horizon in search of He whose arrival they perpetually anticipate, one Mr. Godot, they strike the exaggerated eye-shielding poses of sailors from an operetta chorus.
Trying to figure out the best way to remove Gogo’s shoes, or to hang themselves with a frustratingly short length of rope, they morph into a writhing human pretzel. The geometric possibilities of bodies in contact and collision are further multiplied with the arrival of two other travelers, the arrogant and bloated Pozzo (Rory Nolan) and his broken-down lackey, Lucky (Garrett Lombard).
Pozzo and Lucky — if you’ll excuse the shift in frame of reference — may remind you of the glorious grotesques from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Certainly, Mr. Nolan’s Pozzo is close kin to such arbitrary authority figures as that celebrated advocate of child beating, the Duchess. And when the hitherto mute Lucky is prompted into polysyllabic speech, it comes across as a pyrotechnic explosion of Carroll-style, grown-up gobbledygook.
Everybody tends to sound slightly less, or more, than human when they speak. Even as they ponder the vagaries and vagueness of time and mortality, Gogo and Didi often communicate in squeaky Mickey Mouse voices. When Pozzo delivers his much-quoted, annihilating pronouncement — the one that begins “they give birth astride a grave” — it’s in the tones of a crypt keeper.
I can’t say I felt the mortal shivers here that often descend when I hear those words. Ms. Hynes — the imaginative director who introduced New York to the macabre mind of Martin McDonagh with “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” in 1998 — has presented one of the most accessible, and enjoyable, “Godots” on record. It’s lively and sensibly silly enough to take a child to, at least for its first act.
For more mature minds, if such there be, this production has the virtues of uniformity of style, which is less common in Beckett interpretations than it should be, and gleaming clarity of expression. Every one of the jokes, in all their fugue-like repetition, lands solidly. And lines to which I’ve never paid much attention before stand out in illuminated relief, as when Gogo observes, “Everything oozes. It’s never the same pus from one minute to the next.”
What you may find yourself missing is the deeply touching familiarity of Gogo and Didi’s relationship, a portrait of marriage of sorts, in which interdependence is mixed with impatience and irritability. In more naturalistic interpretations — such as that provided by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Sean Mathias’s 2013 Broadway revival — those eternally linked pals give affecting resonance to the idea of being with someone you can neither live with nor live without.
Still, for theatergoers new to Beckett, I can’t imagine a better introduction than this lucid and entertaining cartoon of a show. That its comic exaggeration can feel a bit distancing may be for the best, especially for newcomers, in this anxious era. The pain at the center of this study of human purposelessness can be hard to take for someone unprepared for the bright glare of Beckett’s unbounded bleakness.
By Ben Brantley