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Amaryllis Theatre’s Waiting for Godot: A New Look at a Classic

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Michael (Left) Lynn (Center) and Buck (Right)Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has been alternatively shocking, challenging, and entertaining audiences since it was first staged nearly sixty years ago. The cryptic wordplay, unresolved inactivity, and temporal inconsistencies defy easy comprehension. Despite, or perhaps because of, this Godot is truly a classic of twentieth-century theater; recent revivals on Broadway (with Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, and John Goodman) and on London’s West End (with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) testify to its enduring appeal. The production by Philadelphia’s Amaryllis Theatre Company, on stage now at the Playhouse at the Adrienne Theatre, may not have the same star draw, but is praiseworthy for the evocative new meanings it brings to the masterpiece.

Waiting for Godot is not an easy play to direct. It is a challenge to capture the deep friendship between the two vagabond lead characters — Estragon, or Gogo, and Vladimir, or Didi — with the correct balance of sadness and humor. At Amaryllis, co-directors Mimi Kenney Smith and Tom Reig present Gogo (Buck Schirner) and Didi (Michael Toner) as a kind of retirement age Odd Couple, full of regret, confusion, and hopelessness. The staging retains some of Beckett’s slapstick (with an excellent pass-the-hat scene), but never veers into the vaudeville silliness of other productions. A successful Godot relies on the comic interplay of the main characters. On the Amaryllis opening night, the camaraderie between Gogo and Didi was well communicated, their sadness was evident, and after a tentative first act, the wordplay was spot-on.

The actors benefit from the fine work of costume designer Millie Hilbel who captured the characters’ essence well, and set designer Dirk Durossette’s elegant handling of a play that can make even the most minimalistic of sets seem distractingly over-decorated.

Amaryllis Theatre is committed to making theater accessible to people with disabilities, an audience generally forgotten in live venues. For Godot, the company is introducing a caption board with real-time display of the dialogue and headsets available to the seeing-impaired over which a narrator will provide details of the action onstage. Except for during the introduction, neither innovation was in use on opening night, but it was profound to see the opening lines on the screen as these features were described:

Estragon: Nothing to be done

Amaryllis’s inaugural production was a sign-language version of Twelfth Night; other plays have seen blind or deaf actors in important roles. This commitment to diversity in casting reaps huge dividends in the inspired casting of Lynn Manning. Manning is fine actor whose disability (I won’t reveal it: the highlight of the performance for me was my discovery of this), incurred in a bar fight at age 23, imbues his portrayal of Pozzo with surprising new meaning, challenging the audience’s memory and self-comfort as Didi and Gogo are challenged onstage. His hesitant first scenes as a bumblingly malevolent bully were more than compensated for by his second act performance as a weaker slave master, now dependent on the help of his slave and on the vagabond pair.

The other half of the play’s secondary duo, the unfortunate servant Lucky, is played with fine physical commitment by David Stanger. Thanks in part to this physical display, I saw Lucky’s predicament (and the way Gogo and Didi move from initial outrage at his plight to abuse and parody) as a reprimand to all humanity and a metaphor for the injustice of the world.

Truly, each adaptation of Beckett’s tour de force brings new appreciation of his genius. If you haven’t seen this play staged, you must. If you think you know the material well, this production is sure to bring new insights into the great work.

Details:

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Amaryllis Theatre Company

The Playhouse at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street

Through November 22

All tickets $10 (accessible to theater-goers with disabilities)

 

Note: I well remember making a fool of myself as a teenager by referring to the title character as Go-dot. The “t” is silent: despite being a natural born Irishman, Beckett first wrote the play in French, a country where he spent much of his life. (Parts of Godot may have been influenced by his time in the French resistance, hungrily wandering the roads of Nazi-occupied France.) Like most people in North America, I now pronounce the name “Guh-DOE”; in Europe — and in the Amaryllis production — it is said more as “GOD-oh,” which is how Beckett preferred it.