I would never advise somebody to skip the performance of a great dramatic text. However, I would recommend actually reading the text before attending a play as elliptical as “Waiting for Godot.” Some elements of the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production of Samuel Beckett’s tragedy are downright laughable, but many great questions are cleared up after seeing it performed on stage. And while it is true that a live staging makes Beckett’s twisted dialogue more comprehensible, the manner in which the RSC executes it is not how the author intended it to be played.
Considering the nature of “Waiting for Godot,” it is not surprising that the performance venue is not easily found. The Clark Street Playhouse is nestled comfortably next to a loading dock on a street that a taxi driver with a map couldn’t direct you to. Literally. Unless you have a good hour and a half to get there, you will miss part of the production. But this might not be a bad thing.
The play moves quickly across two hours but is mediocre even so. The predominant players, Brian Hemmingsen and Christopher Henley, lack something crucial to any production – subtlety. Their portrayal of the waiting vagrants, Vladimir and Estragon, is overdone, and their deliveries are artificial and awkward. At times, their relationship resembles that of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in the film version of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” while at other times they resemble the Odd Couple. One is large, hunkering and laid back; the other is small, wiry and uptight. It should ultimately become clear that the importance of the two characters is rooted in their longstanding friendship, but the acting is too comedic for that message to come across.
Critics have long questioned whether Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship is at least somewhat homoerotic. This is a valid question, but director Dorothy Neuman dwells on it excessively. She should have portrayed the characters simply as two friends united to achieve a common goal, rather than jumping to obvious and, perhaps, easier conclusions.
The remaining characters’ acting is just as flawed. Pozzo, the irritating passerby (Steve Wilhite), and his manservant, Lucky (Richard Mancini), are minimal roles; however, certain elements of these portrayals are distracting.
A further distraction in the course of this production is the costumes. There are only four costumes, and each spans a different era of fashion. Pozzo resembles a 19th-century lion tamer with his coattails, vest, whip and handle bar moustache and goatee. Godot’s messenger boy appears as a colonial schoolboy with bare feet, knickers and a very flouncy, puffy sleeved shirt.
Even Lucky, Vladimir and Estragon – who are similarly
dressed – look as though they’ve stepped out of different time periods. Estragon resembles a private eye from the ’20s, while Vladimir and Lucky look like Depression-era migrant workers.
The set is inadequate as well, suggesting a nuclear wasteland more than a vast countryside. I admire the costume and set designers’ attempts to convey the idea that this scenario transcends place and time, but onstage, these elements translate into distraction and only make the company appear amateur and disorganized.
If you’ve already read “Waiting for Godot,” check out this very novel take on Beckett’s work because it helps you decipher the meaning behind the text. If you haven’t read the play, don’t expect to understand more than a sliver of its meaning. This existentialist work is confusing in print and on the stage.
“Waiting for Godot” will be performed until May 22 at the Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 S. Clark St. Arlington, Va.