The Curio Theatre Company was already at a disadvantage when it decided to dive into Samuel Beckett’s midcentury modernist masterpiece Waiting for Godot, which will have a four-week run at the company’s West Philadelphia theater through March 4.
Forget the play’s towering status and its infamous postmodern opacity, which has had preeminent philosophers and spotty teens alike scratching their heads for 65 years.
Curio director Dan Hodge faces a more salient and far more concrete challenge: to mount the play given its popular 2009 London revival, which featured Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as leads Estragon and Vladimir and which ran for an astonishing 172 sold-out performances.
So I’m doubly impressed that the director and cast deliver such a strong, assured, and wildly energetic take on Beckett’s two-act tragicomedy.
Godot is about two tramps who arrive at a barren little field to keep what seems like an awfully important appointment with someone named Godot. He does not show up.
Every day after, Estragon (Curio artistic director Paul Kuhn) and Vladimir (Brian McCann) return for their appointment. Every day, they wait until sunset. And every night, they go away empty-handed.
Godot doesn’t really matter, of course. What does matter is the waiting.
And to quote Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part. It drives men mad.
Existence is waiting for salvation, for meaning, for direction, for a purpose ... that never comes. Godot is Beckett's first major existentialist tract, its sparse text touching on the paralysis and ennui that come with the intolerable knowledge of our mortality.
But these deep thoughts are woven into a fabric of grotesque absurdity. If Shakespeare’s world is a stage and all men players, Beckett’s is an empty bear pit where men are meat puppets whose own fear and anxiety -- that the bear may one day show up -- pushes them to dance and dive, to do pratfalls and throw punches, to contemplate suicide by hanging and then laugh -- Beavis and Butt-Head style -- at fetishists who use hanging as part of sex. This is existentialism as vaudeville, a demented, funny, dark take on our futile existence.
The worst thing you can do to Godot is force it to wear its intellectual baggage on its sleeves. We have comparative literature departments for that.
Happily, Hodge emphasizes the physical comedy, and to great effect. One sequence has the two men try on a trio of hats between them over and over again, juggling, throwing, grabbing the felt hats back and forth. It's a marvel of comic timing.
The direction is less successful when it comes to the two supporting characters, a rich slave driver named Pozzo (Robert DaPonte) and his very human beast of burden, Lucky (Harry Slack), a pair of walking Hegelian dialectics who enact a demented version of the master-slave fable.
DaPonte’s weirdly formal, antiquated diction is out of place, as is his larger-than-life persona (did I detect a touch of Risky Business-era Tom Cruise in there?) and his tendency to project his voice to the other side of Camden.
There’s art here and talent here. It’s clear Hodge and DaPonte have a strong reading of Pozzo and wanted to give him a unique air. I’m just not sure it works.
Slack is wonderful as Pozzo’s ironically named whipping boy. Watch for his silent robot dance. (I imagined Devo was blaring in the background as he did his thing).
Curio caters to the student crowd, and I can’t see a better way to induct students into Beckett’s rich, strange, and sublime play.