Waiting for Godot

The quintessential existential classic gets a vaudevillian spin at the Court Theatre.

Alfred H. Wilson and Allen Gilmore as Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, directed by Ron OJ Parson, at Chicago's Court Theatre.
Alfred H. Wilson and Allen Gilmore as Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, directed by Ron OJ Parson, at Chicago's Court Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Samuel Beckett's 1953 play Waiting for Godot may be both the bleakest and the most optimistic drama in the absurdist canon. This is the show in which, famously, nothing happens twice. It centers on a pair of bedraggled, vaguely vaudevillian clowns, who have been waiting for an unknown time period for unknown reasons for some fellow named Godot who may or may not ever show up.

Beckett doesn't explain the reasons for the wait, or what sort of deliverance the mysterious Godot might offer. Plot is nearly nonexistent, the dialogue obtuse to impenetrable, the fundamental question — why should we care about any of this? — not merely unanswered but wholly unasked.

And yet under the direction of Ron OJ Parson for Court Theatre, Waiting for Godot is absolutely transcendent, the kind of drama that has you hanging on every word, as to the fate of the shabby Estragon (Alfred H. Wilson) and his fellow nontraveler Vladimir (Allen Gilmore).

"Nothing" is a key utterance in Waiting for Godot — the word is said somewhere between 100 and 125 times. But in Beckett's sly, almost inaccessibly intelligent wordplay and in Wilson and Gilmore's alternately clownish and mordant delivery, those seven letters becomes a talisman. That there's nothing to be done and nothing that can be known requires a form of surrender. And that's what director Parson demands of the audience: complete surrender. Once you've given in to the fact that you will never fully grasp what's going on here, the beauty and the multitiered meanings of the play start to shimmer on the surface. What becomes apparent, and gloriously so, is that even when faced with nothing, Vladimir and Estragon never give up their potentially soul-crushing fight. If Godot doesn't come today, well then, perhaps he'll come tomorrow. Their hope is unbreakable, their faith absolute.

Timing is everything in Waiting for Godot. Each word, apparent non sequitur, and run-on rant must fit as neatly as the construction of an Escher drawing. When we first meet Estragon and Vladimir, they are in full vaudevillian comic mode. Estragon has something stuck in his boot. Vladimir is troubled by the interior of his hat. Their shoe and chapeau shenanigans go on at length, interspersed by musings on whether Godot will appear. They also discuss whether it would be best to abandon each other and set off alone in search of Godot. In the end, Estragon and Vladimir conclude that as inhospitable and cruel as the world is (Estragon is beaten savagely each night, both men sleep in ditches), it would be infinitely more so should they split up. That rock-solid belief in the power of companionship, along with the unflagging hope in a better tomorrow, is what gives Waiting for Godot its essential optimism.

Both Wilson and Gilmore are splendid in their rags and costumed tatters. In their capable hands, the dialogue becomes poetry, sometimes with the rapid-fire staccato bursts of a machine gun, sometimes with the languid ease of a setting sun. Each phrase comes close to being a benediction, and a testimony to the eternal power of hope.

Twice, their solitary camaraderie is interrupted by a pair of sub/dom buffoons. Pozzo (A.C. Smith, bellowing and puffed up like a bull frog) leads Lucky (Anthony Lee Irons) by a rope around the neck, barking orders while yanking him along and bellowing pronouncements like some renegade from a highly specialized dungeon. Irons is mute, but for one extraordinary unleashing of twisted philosophizing that will leave your head spinning at both the actor's verbal endurance and the dazzling too-quick-to-grasp subtext in his words. It's a masterful interlude.

Director Parson has added a layer of hope onto Beckett's words with Courtney O'Neill's scenic design. The entire play takes place on a patch of grass, neatly surrounded by a curbed sidewalk. Estragon and Vladimir may be trapped in no man's land, but it's a carefully maintained no man's land, perhaps even suburban no man's land where somebody is trimming the lawn. The place is forlorn and ugly to be sure, but it's cared for. What you see onstage is not unlike what you may pass by during any given day. And that gives Godot a potency the resonates beyond the walls of any theater.

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Waiting for Godot

Closed: February 15, 2015