Entering the West Side Presbyterian Church to attend the York Shakespeare Company's production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, one recalls the Irish playwright's famous quote that "All poetry is prayer." The work's religious connotations cannot be ignored, and director Stephen A. Brown makes sure that the audience doesn't miss any of them. The playing space is a church balcony overlooking a stained glass nativity scene; the actors use a peculiar pronunciation of the title which indicates that they are, in fact, waiting for God; and a character described as a boy in the original script seems more like a "father" here, wearing a priest's frock and blessing the theater in a ceremony before and after the show.

It's the mission of the York Shakespeare Company to present "innovative" interpretations of classics; so it's interesting that the troupe has chosen to stage a Beckett play, given that the late author constantly battled directors (especially Yanks!) who failed to follow the texts and stage directions of his plays to the letter. For example, he tried to get an injunction against JoAnne Akalaitis's controversial production of Endgame in an abandoned subway, and his estate pulled the plug on a European tour of Footfalls about five years after his death. Beckett probably spins in his grave every time a contemporary director fiddles around with his plays; perhaps that's proof of an afterlife?

Luckily, the Beckett estate did not catch wind of the YSC's Waiting for Godot. Strong acting makes the production a solid one, for the most part. This Estragon (or "Go-Go," played by artistic director Seth Duerr) and Vladimir (or "Di-Di," played by Bennett Pologe) have stage presences that are at once commanding and light; they engage us by doing very little. The slave-driving Pozzo (Thomas Westphal) and his hapless servant, Lucky (Colin Ryan), make a great comic pair as they deconstruct injustice and oppression in a breezy vaudevillian style. Their spare characterizations illustrate the strength of Beckett's simplicity: The entire plot of the play is encompassed by the title, yet this work is a modern classic. (YSC is presenting Godot along with Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two in a series with the umbrella title "Tired Dreamers.")

As much as the performances cited above show the strength of Brown's direction, the character of the boy (Marc Silberschatz) highlights its weaknesses. Brown burdens the actor with so many bells and whistles that it's difficult to tell there's a person underneath. In the original script, the boy is Godot's messenger. Here, he's a messenger, a priest, a storyteller, and even a tree at one point. If he weren't wearing a clerical collar, one might even think that he could be a rabbi, as he davens in the traditional Jewish form of supplication.

The costumes consist of Chaplinesque outfits that look like they were ripped from old silent films. Instead of canes, however, the actors swing around umbrellas in a series of bits: Go-Go uses one as a shoehorn in an attempt to take off his boots, while other characters knock off each other's tophats in whirlwinds of slapstick violence. Although these props are the funniest of the director's additions to the script, it would take a choreographer to really bring them into play effectively. (During a couple of scenes, the umbrellas become makeshift crucifixes in another example of overt religious imagery.)

York Shakespeare's Waiting for Godot is a very worthwhile production, yet it's also a testament to the problems encountered in interpreting Beckett's plays. Though this tragicomedy is about God's abandonment, the playwright was quite dogmatic on the subject of how his works should be performed.