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Be thankful for small theaters. While the larger companies in South Florida cater to conventional tastes, the tiny troupes fill out the menu with an array of riskier, challenging programming. Fort Lauderdale's Sol Theatre has made risk-taking a fundamental company rule. Tony Priddy and Robert Hooker's cheeky crew debuted in 2001 with Shakespeare's The Tempest, of all things, and went on to charge at (if not decisively tackle) Shaw, Mamet, and a raft of other prickly projects. Lately Sol has been coming out on top of bouts with such formidable projects as Marisol, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and Stop/Kiss, among others. Now the company is grappling with one of contemporary theater's most challenging texts, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a Rubik's cube of a play in which nothing and everything happens.
Describing the plotline of this play is a fool's errand, but I will do my best. Two road-weary tramps, Vladimir, known as Didi, and Estragon, known as Gogo, wait by a leafless tree in the middle of nowhere. They are anticipating the arrival of a mysterious Mr. Godot, who may or may not be their benefactor. Gogo doubts Godot will turn up, but Didi is optimistic. The pair chat, grouse, play word games, and soul-search to pass the time. Still no Godot. They wonder if there might have been some misunderstanding about the time. Were they waiting here the day before? They can't remember. Into this confusion, someone is approaching. Gogo thinks it's Godot, but it turns out to be one Pozzo, an imperious blusterer who marches in, leading by a noose his gaunt, pitiful slave, Lucky. Pozzo pauses to chat with Didi and Gogo, gorging on food and drink while Lucky stands, silently suffering, weighted down by Pozzo's luggage. The visitors move on, but the tramps receive another visitor, a child who tells them that Godot sends word he will come tomorrow. Darkness falls, and Didi and Gogo are left alone again, still waiting for Godot.
And that's the first act.
Beckett's loopy, enigmatic play premiered in Paris in 1953 and promptly set the theater world on its head. Beckett serves up vaudevillian characters and slapstick gags, giving them deep philosophical contexts, in sharp contrast to the hyperrealism of the era. Confounded by these and Beckett's dense, poetic language, packed with symbolism and literary references, audiences tended to divide into two camps -- those who stayed and those who walked out. To the walkouts, who ruled when Godot made its American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Godot is known as the ultimate absurdist conundrum, an unintelligible bit of eggheaded rubbish. Even its admirers aren't enthusiastic. Most can tout Beckett's profound influence on everybody from Tom Stoppard to Quentin Tarantino, but more than a few own up to the fact that Beckett can be rather dull.
Not at the Sol, where the first commandment is always, "Thou shalt not be boring." Robert Hooker's production features a lot of agile physicality and snappy patter with a decidedly hip, modern sensibility. The Paris-based Beckett reportedly modeled his tramps after Charlie Chaplin (the name Godot, it's said, alludes to Chaplin's nickname in France, "Charlot"). But Hooker updates Didi and Gogo as two homeless men who may or may not be a gay couple. Their use of nicknames and baby talk, their sudden spats and fits of pique, and their care and affection for each other suggest an ongoing domestic relationship. It's an unusual choice but a perfectly good one. As Didi, Jim Gibbons is fine, with his whiskey-deep voice and weathered, impish look. Gibbons has come a long way since he made his tentative, uneasy debut as Prospero in The Tempest. He has developed his skills in many Sol shows and blossomed into a wry, resourceful comedian with a natural, grounded acting style. As Gogo, Jim Sweet is a snippy, insecure bundle of nerves, in constant need of comfort and attention. These clowns may be bored silly waiting around, but they are thoroughly entertaining to watch, and Hooker's inspired, detailed direction is filled with inventive jokes, gags, and topical references.
This Godot gets a lot right, but not all of it. Ivan Saltz's Pozzo finds the humor and self-pity in the character but little threat or cruelty. Fritz Stang's gaunt, silent Lucky, staring blankly with a wide, drooling grin, has a perfect look for the role and effectively conveys a sense of mute suffering. But when Stang finally lets loose with Lucky's famous rambling monologue, it seems more exhausting than manic or cathartic. Hooker's decision to set the play in "a bombed out Post Apocalyptic temple" is a misguided attempt to give a specific context to a deliberately nonspecific play.
Moreover, though Hooker satirically references televangelists in passing, he either fails to notice or deliberately ignores the play's overt, if scrambled, Christian symbolism. Didi and Gogo have been likened to the two thieves crucified with Jesus, and that line of thinking is not far-fetched. The tramps call their location Skull Valley (the site of the Crucifixion, Golgotha, means "Place of the Skull"). The play's lone bare tree is identified more than once as a willow, which by tradition was the tree from which Judas hanged himself, and Godot is filled with scenes about hanging and suicide.
Still Hooker's production gets the main points right. The set establishes Beckett's bleak view of the human condition: muddy walls embedded with bones, frightful masks, and skeletal parts huddle forlornly beneath a cold, moonlit sky. The haunting music score by Richard Brookens adds an unsettling sense of mystery. Beckett wrote Godot after the nightmare of World War II, when all forms of belief seemed useless. The play shatters and refracts many belief systems -- Christianity, totalitarianism (the Pozzo/Lucky relationship seems directly borrowed from the didactic plays of Bertolt Brecht), and liberal rationalism. None of it solves anything, Beckett seems to say, and none of it offers solace, except in the hope of the new day to come. It's here where Hooker makes another significant mistake in a small role. By casting an adult in the role of the child bearing a message from Godot, the production is robbed of that hopeful element. The child embodies the potential that the next generation, unburdened by the knowledge of the human condition, can bring salvation. These reservations aside, the Sol's Godot may be as good a chance as South Florida will get to see a strong production of this classic play.
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