Waiting for Godot is the go-to joke for a play you know you’re supposed to appreciate but not understand. It’s a joke mostly made by people who’ve never seen it -- who only know it by its grim, obscurantist reputation rather than for what it is, and for what director Dan Hodge, with the Curio Theater Company, has made of it: a kind of existentialist vaudeville.
Samuel Beckett finished Godot in 1949, after the horrors of World War II. It’s an iteration of a comic tradition that stretches back through human history, a struggle to comprehend a universe that stubbornly refuses to explain its cruelty.
Not funny ha ha
Two tramps -- Vladimir, called Didi (Brian McCann), and Estragon, called Gogo (Paul Kuhn), clowns of an archetypal pedigree -- wait by a bare tree at the side of a road for a man called Godot. While they wait, they pass the time with trivialities, and with Pozzo (Robert DaPonte), of similar archetypal pedigree, and his beleaguered servant Lucky (Harry Slack). At the end of the first act, Godot fails to appear; in the second act, Didi and Gogo wait for him again.
It’s tempting to read a kind of message of personal growth into a play like this: Aren’t we all stuck waiting for a hero to deliver us from our problems? Aren’t we all mired in our old habits, projecting salvation outward, when what we need to do is seize the day? It’s likewise tempting to read a social message into it. Pozzo is the domineering patrician class, doling out abuse to his inferiors; Didi and Gogo, because of the cycle of abuse, empathize with him rather than with the beknighted Lucky, with whom they have more in common.
But Godot's bones are meatier than that. Here is a play about the fundamental nature of humanity: a species hopelessly confused, hopelessly ignorant, hopelessly hopeless, our existence an endless joke with no punchline that can match the setup.
Wait for it...
McCann’s Didi is the quick, talkative clown. As sure a hand at vaudeville as anyone in Philadelphia, he has a precise, flexible style well suited to the role: quick when he needs to be, contemplative when it counts, accurate as a clock. Kuhn’s Gogo, the slow, taciturn clown, can’t quite keep up. He’s often on the mark, but there’s a reedy sameness to his delivery that suffers in comparison to McCann and to DaPonte’s similarly dynamic Pozzo.
Kyle Yackoski provides a subtle, clever sound design that nevertheless feels like it’s too much. The sparseness of Godot is its shape, and clever design feels like scribbling in the margins. Kuhn’s set is similarly economical and also too much, with the added disadvantage of Beckett’s “country road” and “tree” looking less like a lonely skeleton in the middle of nowhere and more like a palm tree overhanging a tropical island.
Is this intentional? Has Dan Hodge conceived of a Godot where Didi and Gogo are not two tramps trapped in a spot on an endless road, but two buddies in a tropical paradise, if only they knew it? Something about the quickness of the play, especially its first act, signifies that interpretation. Hodge, in his effort to make Godot about the futility of despair, seems to abjure the notion of despair entirely. Here, humor is the salvation for a brutally inconsiderate world, one that redeems its horrors. How quickly this production glides past telling lines, like Gogo’s “I can’t breathe,” and telling moments, like Lucky’s choice to hand his master back his whip.
This is a fast-paced, funny, undeniably watchable production of Waiting for Godot, and well worth the time. It feels strange to argue that a play could stand to be less watchable, yet perhaps I just disagree with Hodge’s essential interpretation of the play. There ought to be something indigestible about Godot, something hard and agonizing. Hodge’s interpretation reads a little too blithe, a little too easy.
Comedy, it’s understood, is the answer to the despair of human suffering—but here, with 10,000 years of human history behind us, maybe it’s worth pointing out that some jokes aren’t funny.