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Comedy and Tragedy Are at Play in Waiting for Godot

The Galway-based Druid Theatre Company brings the classic play about nothing to Chicago.

Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon in a scene from Waiting for Godot, directed by Garry Hynes, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
(© Matthew Thompson)

The setup for Samuel Beckett's existential classic Waiting for Godot couldn't be simpler. A stage, almost bare, holds a tree, a stone, and two men. The men, Vladimir (Marty Rea) and Estragon (Aaron Monaghan), are a pair of vagrants who wait for a man named Godot. If they ever knew why they were waiting, they've forgotten. Nevertheless, they keep on waiting, filling the time by philosophizing, soliloquizing, and playing word games. The 1953 play, one of the most studied and parodied works of the 20th century, has seen its fair share of notable revivals in recent years. The Galway-based Druid Theatre Company's touring production, now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a superb addition to the Godot canon.

Director Garry Hynes hasn't wasted a single word of the iconic play. In her steady hands, the bleak poetry of every line is apparent. Each silence is exactly measured. Hynes understands the fusion of comedy and tragedy in Beckett's work, and she has cast a quartet of actors who take to the challenging language like they were born to it.

As Estragon, Monaghan channels a long line of clowns who eke comedy out of slumped shoulders and a hangdog look, while Rea's philosophical Vladimir is as snappy as a rubber band. Whether they're contemplating suicide or merely trading hats, the two share a keen sense of timing, finishing one another's thoughts with a rhythm straight out of the vaudeville circuit. Their absurd, cyclical conversations are punctuated with occasional acrobatics that are every bit as precise as their patter.

Vladimir and Estragon's antics are certainly ludicrous, but they seem downright sensible compared to the behavior of Pozzo (Rory Nolan) and his much-abused manservant, Lucky (Garrett Lombard), the travelers they encounter on the dusty road. Nolan's imposing size and razor-sharp smile imbue Pozzo's officious courtesy with a hint of danger. When Lucky lets loose with a long diatribe, Lombard reveals a wonderfully clear and cool newscaster's voice that laughably contrasts with his fire-and-brimstone barrage. Just when you think he can't possibly go on, on he goes.

Francis O'Connor's set is packed with imagery, despite its minimalism. The stone that Estragon perches on is large and smooth, like an egg that will never hatch. The tree that invites thoughts of suicide looks less like a living plant than a gnarl of rusted metal, worn down by time. The palette is generally limited to grays, tans, and dark clay reds, with occasional glorious bursts of dusky blue sky, courtesy of James F. Ingalls's lighting design. The effect is almost relaxing, a perfect complement to this rich production.