Zachary Scott Fewkes is only 12. But he has been skipping school in Lake Zurich recently to hang out on the Chicago waterfront with a pair of Irish bums.
And his parents approve.
Then again, these are no ordinary Hibernian hobos, but two of the most famous homeless men in literature: Vladimir and Estragon, the talkative tramps in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” currently on stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
As frustrating as their task is — miserably killing time on a barren heath, with its one bare tree, waiting for someone who never arrives — the roles, played by Marty Rea (Vladimir) and Aaron Monaghan (Estragon) are diva turns compared to Fewkes’ character, “Boy,” who shows up at the end of the first act to deliver a message: “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.”
An easy role to overlook. The reviews in the Sun-Times and Trib name four of the five actors — Chris Jones refers to “a quartet of masterful performances,” cutting Fewkes out of the ensemble entirely, even though his character has not only an under-appreciated importance in the meaning of the play, but a unique acting challenge.
The four adults are seasoned actors from Galway’s renowned Druid Theatre, with a long list of roles and awards between them.
Fewkes is a 6th grader at Lake Zurich’s Middle School North, and Boy’s transit is so brief it is cast anew in each city, even in Ireland, the way Chuck Berry used to play with local pick-up bands. These young thespians are expected to come up to professional speed quickly, a task Fewkes found, well, child’s play.
“It was really fun,” he said. “I got the lines before, some videos from Chicago Shakespeare. I got to see those, to know what’s going on. I learned the lines. Marty and Aaron taught me all the blocking, and really helped me out. It was awesome.”
What insight did they give?
“They told me that my character should be affectless, calmer than usual and not very human,” he said.
“Waiting for Godot” is considered one of the most significant plays of the 20th century, a work of ribald despair, of bleak amusement. How does it seem to a fresh set of eyes? Was Fewkes, with many acting credits himself, already familiar with the work?
“No, this was new to me when I got it,” he said.
“I thought it was funny and I thought it had a lot of lessons to it,” he said. “It’s a really hard show to understand, it can be interpreted a lot of different ways. There are funny moments, but truly it’s despairing. Everyone can interpret it in their own way.”
How did he interpret it?
“I thought it was a dream, or a nightmare.”
This Godot everybody’s waiting for; who is he?
“I think, maybe God.”
An entity who, thanks to Boy, the audience can suspect actually exists. Without Boy, you’d never know if Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for a fantasy. He’s dawdling, sure, but the Boy suggests he’s on his way. While the messenger’s 55 lines are short — half are “Yes Sir” and “No Sir” — he arrives at the climax of each act.
Fewkes caught the acting bug from his older sisters, Maggie and Danielle, now 16 and 18.
“I saw my sisters do some acting in our local theater,” he said. “I just tried it once, and it was really fun and I wanted to keep doing it.”
Why? What’s the big deal about acting?
“It’s just really fun to be someone else,” he said. “Fun to be a funny character, to be funny and make people laugh. I think that’s cool.”
An actor of any age wants to be noticed, and being part of what the Sun-Times called “a sublime cast of protean performers” strikes me as cold comfort if you are also deprived of your individual due. So here goes:
“Zachary Scott Fewkes imparts grace and an otherworldly presence to Boy, one of the more enigmatic characters in Samuel Beckett’s unsettling landscape. Unlike the two tramps in ‘Waiting for Godot,’ the world will not have to wait long to find out what is next for this promising performer.”
“Waiting for Godot” is being performed until June 3 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.