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Godot to the last drop

Beckett's enduring play continues to puzzle


At the Cultch until Jan. 21 Tickets: 604.251.1363

Directors often suck the life out of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by treating it with stultifying reverence. While not diminishing the play's brilliance one whit, John Wright, directing for Blackbird Theatre, takes a playful approach-a reminder to us that Beckett subtitled the play "A Tragicomedy in Two Acts."

Anthony F. Ingram (Didi) and Simon Webb (Gogo) are just the actors for tragicomedy: both are "serious" actors, comfortable with playwrights from Shakespeare to Ibsen, but they both have a funny bone, too. While Beckett's stage directions, for example, read that Gogo is trying to get his boots off, Webb turns this simple instruction into a hilarious, life and death struggle with boot leather.

Dressed in rags and battered bowler hats, Didi and Gogo echo Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, a little man waiting with a soul full of hope for love. Didi and Gogo, on the other hand, wait for a mysterious character called Godot. Like Chaplin's little vagabond, they puff themselves up with delusions of grandeur, pretending to be gentlemen when, in fact, they are homeless and surviving on Didi's last remaining carrots and turnips.

It's a blasted landscape that designer Marti Wright gives Didi and Gogo in which to wait: one big boulder that looks like an ancient, bleached, dinosaur skull (did the dinosaur die waiting for Godot?) and one leafless, scrawny tree that sprouts a handful of unhealthy looking leaves between Act 1 and Act 2. "It must be spring," says Gogo, hopefully.

But Spring doesn't come and neither does Godot. The joke about Waiting for Godot is that nothing happens- twice. Nothing happens in Act 1 and nothing happens again in Act 2. But it's the diversions while waiting that entertain Didi, Gogo and us. So they talk, bicker, make up, embrace, consider hanging themselves, sleep and eat.

The greatest diversion of all is the arrival of Pozzo (William Samples) and his slaveon-a-rope, Lucky (Adam Henderson). Samples is oily and demanding as the affluent landowner who arrives with a stool and a picnic basket containing a bottle of wine and some chicken. He's completely self-absorbed and incapable of seeing the misery of others. He yanks on Lucky's rope, calling him "Misery" and "Pig" while shouting demands. "Stool," he bellows and Lucky shuffles forward with the stool. "Back," he orders and Lucky retreats. "Dance," leads to an awkward movement like a puppet with no strings but "Think" leads to a lengthy discourse peppered with "personal God," "divine apathia" and other vaguely philosophical fragments. Henderson delivers this long monologue with phrasing, clarity and passion that makes it sound almost rational.

Audiences have puzzled over Waiting For Godot since 1954 when it debuted in Paris (in the original French) in 1953. One common reading of this play is that Didi and Gogo are waiting for God, but since God had been declared dead by Nietzsche and others back in the 19th century, they will wait forever. Beckett himself told actor Ralph Richardson that if by Godot he had meant God, he would have said God and not Godot. And so the puzzle endures. Who is Godot and will he ever come?

What is evident, however, is that what Didi and Gogo do while they wait is important. Didi is scandalized by Pozzo's treatment of Lucky; he knows inhumanity when he sees it. He cares for Gogo who might otherwise starve. He remains steadfast-even cheerful-in the face of life's absurdity. And that, I suspect Beckett is suggesting, takes courage.

This production, which includes young Zander Constant as Boy, is tremendously entertaining without being reductive. Indeed, the funnier it is, the more poignant becomes Didi and Gogo's plight.