Time passes more quickly while watching Druid Theatre’s delightfully mournful production of “Waiting for Godot” at Chicago Shakespeare. Not literally, of course. Well, perhaps time does literally go faster when we feel it’s so; that’s hard to know in this bended universe of ours. What’s important is that a full 70 years after Samuel Beckett originally wrote this famed philosophical vaudeville act, when performed with the type of care and precision on stage in this exquisite production, the work still passes the time, which would have passed in any case, but not nearly so well.
‘Waiting for Godot’
When: Through June 3
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Under the direction of the Galway -based theater’s leader Garry Hynes (who won a Tony for her direction of Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”), the sublime cast of protean performers each reveal a range of skills, combining styles from the classical to the campy, the silly to the serious, the lyrical to the laid-back, all while maintaining a consistent reality (not a realistic reality, mind you, but a reliable aesthetic one).
As the two tramps who spend their days awaiting the arrival of the ill-defined Godot, only to be greeted with perpetual disappointment, Marty Rea (a lanky, ruminative Vladimir) and Aaron Monaghan (an especially forlorn Estragon) ideally capture Beckett’s depiction of the desperate human need to entertain ourselves, and find within that desperation both humor and poignancy. In one sequence, they make thinking amusing and amusements painful, and in another they make thinking painful and pain amusing.
Hynes brings a good degree of patience to this show, which does run longer than other productions I’ve seen. She’s not afraid to let time feel slower for a bit before speeding it back up again. The pauses come even more frequently than usual, with the benefit that each response has a purposeful exactness. When Rea’s Didi (short for Vladimir) congratulates himself for keeping his appointment with Godot and asks: “How many people can boast as much?,” there’s the perfect pause as Monaghan’s Gogo (short for Estragon) considers his answer before concluding, as if it’s obvious, “Billions.”
In addition to being more pensive, the production can also be more physical. Hynes, with the assistance of movement director Nick Winston, makes the clowning bits feel choreographic, the verbal pauses often filled with gestures notable for their meticulous precision. When the stage direction indicates for Didi to think, Rea’s eyes quickly dart up and to the right, his brow and beard scrunch, his fingers tap quickly on his chin. It’s not complicated, maybe not unique, but it’s so perfect I want a picture of it. Monaghan has several genuinely impressive moments of motion — leaning forward further than seems possible, for example.
As the two figures who wander upon Didi and Gogo in each of the two acts, Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard (both extraordinary) define their characters primarily through movement. Nolan’s Pozzo portrays his long-faded aristocrat with a grand theatricality that can have him self-consciously prancing on tiptoes, and Lombard’s unlucky Lucky scampers around with steady, near-musical syncopation.
This is also a sadder, but certainly not cheerless, “Waiting for Godot.” Hynes invests the tone with heartfelt somberness. Every production has a set of lines that come more to the forefront – in this instance, Gogo’s professions of exhaustion feel prominent. When reminded that they must stay to wait for Godot, the emphasis – often placed on the first response of “Ah!” – is here given to the sense of desperation that frequently follows: “What’ll we do! What’ll we do!” His concern that his friend Didi might be happier without him comes across as a sincere worry as opposed to a habitual plea for reassurance.
And finally, the production, designed by Francis O’Connor, is visually beautiful. The necessarily spare set consists of shades of gray, with the cement-like slabs in the background serving as a sky-like void. The stage is rimmed with a ribbon of light that makes the whole playing space resemble one of those greeting cards that unfolds into three dimensions. When night falls – so suddenly – the lights drop, the background turns a deep blue, and a round moon shifts from the wings, with its hanging wire visible, suggestive of a swaying clock.
Another day done, another to come. Until Godot arrives. Which he won’t.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.