So what’s it all about?
Yes, that’s the question.
Of course the famously witty but totally misleading nutshell description is that “Waiting for Godot” is a play in which nothing happens, twice.
Yes, there are two acts, and yes, at the end Gogo and Didi are still waiting for Godot to appear. (I haven’t ruined it for you, no more than to say that comedies end happily and Hamlet dies.) But when Act 2 seemingly replicates Act 1, you already have a plot, an arc of both character and action.
Plenty happens in “Godot,” as long as you think the daily and larger struggles of life are worthy of note. The action is nothing less than the pratfalls and yearning, small triumphs and endemic emptiness of life as we imperfectly know it.
Or does this sound pretentious? Granted, that’s a danger, but it comes more from the play’s admirers than the play itself. Strip it of the aura of philosophy, existentialism or a set text you disliked in school, and it really is just about a couple of old guys trying to fill in each day and perhaps find some meaning before time runs out.
Gogo and Didi (more formally, Estragon and Vladimir, and you can puzzle over those names) are pretty clearly us, in one way or another. And so, rather frighteningly, are the pompous Pozzo and bedraggled Lucky who travel through, twice.
It’s hard to remember that people were once bamboozled by this play. It seems clear enough now in its general story, which is just what it says, with the details left to our individual understanding, because making sense of detail is one way we square up to life.
As a critic will, I’ve now seen “Godot” nine times since the Public Theater’s controversial 1984 version complete with an abandoned car. Every one is necessarily different and not just because of the many small changes in stage directions and bits of dialogue Beckett made when he directed it (in German!) in 1975, changes published in 1993 and used here.
To start, along with the canonical barren, three-branched tree, the PICT set design by Alan Stanford features a rock, a nice place to sit. Behind is a sky of icy blue melting into icy green at the horizon. Later, there’s a gorgeous full moon in a deep blue sky.
Gogo and Didi are poised, well more than halfway through life. Silence.
Good for director Aoife Spillane-Hinks who honors those many silences in the text. Waiting is the essence. Her direction feels sure and measured.
“Godot” presents three basic choices: the bluster of Pozzo (the one percent, you might say), the subservience of Lucky, and the in-between lot of most of us, who have to find a way to make it through each repetitive day.
Most of the action is modest enough, with all the ritualized disagreements and rapprochements of a lengthy marriage. A lot is comic. But often enough, something simple strikes a cosmic chord, whether through homely truism or deeper insight. And there’s nothing homely about Pozzo’s chilling summary: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Gogo and Didi are played by Martin Giles and James FitzGerald. The usual distinction is between Didi’s mind and Gogo’s feeling, between theory and sentiment, rationale and instinct. But here, the two overlap interestingly, like an old married couple, perhaps, or the jumbled yin and yang in us all.
Still, Mr. Giles’ instinctual Gogo may remind you of Stan Laurel, complete with whine. Mr. FitzGerald’s thoughtful Didi is the more surprising, because we’ve seen too little of this fine, flexible actor in major roles.
Ken Bolden’s bent Lucky blossoms in his famous stream-of-consciousness tirade, taking it so slowly that you may think you understand it. Alan Stanford, PICT artistic director, is a magisterial Pozzo – the role he played many years for Dublin’s Gate Theatre, which brought it here in 2006.
So, ultimately, who is this Godot? For what or whom are they waiting? Cagy old Sam Beckett (who was a novice playwright when he wrote it) never said, leaving it up to us.
But consider the name. This PICT production pronounces it GOD-oh, in place of the Frenchified guh-DOH we all learned back in the day. There are arguments both ways, but the advantage of GOD-oh is to sound more Irish, as the lilt of Beckett’s English text suggests. (Mr. FitzGerald honors that lilt; Mr. Giles is more prosaic American; Mr. Stanford has the rotund English accent appropriate to a mid-20th-century landlord.)
GOD-oh also sounds more offhand (think BOY-oh or other Irishisms). So you could understand it to be a familiarity for God (the text is full of Biblical references) or even some other savior, sacred or secular, as you choose. Surely there’s something we await or expect, otherwise what trajectory do we have?
Just as these large questions vary, “Godot” is different, whether reinterpreted or experienced at a different stage of life. The assured PICT crew, from director Spillane-Hinks and veteran Stanford on down, give it a rich, full reading, worthy of being your first “Godot” or your ninth.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.