Not worth the waiting

Hat Trick's Waiting for Godot doesn't understand its source

click to enlarge Kevin Whalen (left) and Jack Holloway as Vladimr and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. - Joe Winskye
Joe Winskye
Kevin Whalen (left) and Jack Holloway as Vladimr and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.

For about half an hour, the Hat Trick Theatre production of Waiting for Godot (which I saw in a dress rehearsal) looks to be a winner — unorthodox maybe, but a winner. By casting that excellent, unpredictable actor Jack Holloway as the more physical tramp Estragon, and the straightforward, simpler-seeming Kevin Whalin as the intellectual Vladimir, director Joe Winskye changes the usual power relationship of the two friends, and leads us to wonder whether Estragon, after all, is the more dominant. Winskye also seems to be making a statement by using two 20-something actors in roles that are usually played by men of middle age or older ("How long have we been together?" asks Estragon. "Fifty years maybe," says Vladimir). Maybe Winskye seems to say that time has stopped for these two men; if they're in Hell or Purgatory — which isn't impossible — then they might have been together half a century without aging. And anyway, isn't it time that someone took some risks with Samuel Beckett's modern classic? Maybe the play has unexpected revelations to offer, with just a little adjusting.

Then the characters Pozzo and Lucky enter — and the whole edifice begins to crumble. First, Jon Cho as Pozzo mispronounces his own name — calling himself Poe-zo instead of the traditional Italian Pot-zo — and then proceeds to reduce this pivotal, complicated character to nothing more than a mean-spirited cipher. There's the age problem again — Pozzo speaks of having done something 60 years earlier, while Cho looks no older than 30 — but mostly there's an acting problem: This is a Pozzo without depth, without a backstory, without a subtext.

His slave Lucky is just as problematic: Paul McColgan is much too young for the part, and instead of seeming to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, appears robust and muscular and entirely capable of saying, "I've had enough," and punching Pozzo in the gut. Anyway, after the entrance of master and slave, one wrong note follows the next, and what at first seemed like a bold new interpretation begins to feel like a series of miscues.

The bags that Lucky carries look modern and suburban instead of ominous and denatured; Lucky's dance, which should remind us of a man "entangled in a net" is instead modern and even flashy; Lucky's long, jumbled speech is delivered at times as if coming from a Southern evangelist; the three other characters scream at each other while Lucky is "thinking," rendering him largely inaudible.

These wrong notes play on and on, and eventually Holloway and Whalin too get caught up in the mayhem. Now everyone's shouting; now Holloway performs one stagy somersault too many; now after minutes of witnessing actors too young for their parts, we're introduced to the Boy — the messenger from Godot — who should be no more than 9 or 10 years old, but in this production is at least 16. And David Barrow as the Boy changes a crucial line, telling Vladimir that his job is to "mind the sheep," when the script has him saying that he minds the goats. It's not a small point: Clearly Beckett is alluding here to the New Testament division of humankind into sheep (the faithful) and goats (the damned). When the Boy speaks his line correctly, we should be moved to think that maybe Vladimir and Estragon are goats — sinners, the damned, utterly dependent on God's — or Godot's — mercy.

But by this point, we come to expect little from this production — it's just too noisy and wrongheaded and lacking in all subtlety. Late in Act Two, Vladimir has one of the great speeches in the play: "To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us. ..." But actor Whalin delivers the words as if he were reading from the phone book, with no appearance of intellection, of understanding, of the slightest feeling for the humanity he speaks of.

He's just as unconvincing with what should be a frightening speech: "Astride of the grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries." These are desperately important thoughts; but there's no desperation in Whalin's delivery.

In the last half-hour of the show, nothing is right. Pozzo's despair over the brevity of life comes across as bad temper; Vladimir's terror at learning that Godot has a white beard (Lucky depicted God "with white beard") isn't even suggested, much less played; and Vladimir's betrayal of Estragon — leaving his friend out of a message meant for Godot — is thrown away as if it were meaningless.

Even Holloway's Estragon comes across as one-dimensional now.

Godot, when feelingly directed and played, is a masterpiece of nuance and pathos. But the Hat Trick Godot is ultimately tiresome, loud, thoughtless, misunderstood. At the end, we can't help but feel that every role is miscast, every emphasis misplaced. Worse, we're bored.

At least the design elements (excepting Lucky's luggage) are well-considered. Samantha Dix's set is as bleak as Beckett could have wanted: a bare tree, a rock and then nothing but Void. Lani McGettigan's costumes are

just right for the two tramps — torn coats, ratty trousers, boots that are one step from vanishing — and a black suit is equally appropriate for the wealthy Pozzo. Everyone wears a bowler hat (and the scene in which Vladimir and Estragon exchange hats as if they're a vaudeville team does work well, come to think of it), and though the Silver Meteor Gallery's lighting capacities are crude at best, Dix's lighting is tolerable. This show basically looks right. That may be the kindest thing that I can honestly say about it.

But what I feel is most urgent to say is this: Don't be misled by this production. Beckett's Godot, when staged well, is a resonant, terribly important meditation on spiritual poverty, on the need for transcendence, on the terror of life and death and the transience of power. With a Vladimir who feels and thinks deeply, a pitiable Estragon, a multi-layered, vulnerable Pozzo and an aged, terrorized Lucky, Godot has more to say about the human condition than a hundred other plays combined.

I've seen several affecting productions on the live stage and a few on film and video. When this drama works, it works, and there's nothing else like it. Beckett never wrote another play of equal range, intellectually and emotionally.

Godot may be the most important play of the last century.

But watching the Hat Trick production, you'd never guess it.