Waiting game 

7 Stages delivers a Godot worth waiting for

The best show I've ever seen at 7 Stages was the 1992 Waiting for Godot directed by theatrical pioneer and frequent collaborator Joseph Chaikin. Chaikin's death last year derailed the playhouse's plans to remount the production, but 7 Stages found a considerable consolation when German director Walter Asmus agreed to step in.

Asmus worked as playwright Samuel Beckett's own assistant director at a Berlin Godot in 1976. Since then, Asmus has become arguably the world's definitive director of Beckett's work, especially Godot, which stands as possibly the most powerful yet enigmatic play of the 20th century. At 7 Stages, Asmus oversees a precise, insightful version of Godot that equals Chaikin's production without surpassing it.

Then as now, 7 Stages' Godot stars Del Hamilton and Don Finney as Vladimir and Estragon, hard-luck tramps who linger in a barren landscape for the title character. Chaikin's take emphasized both broad slapstick and subtleties of movement to give a loose, robust quality to a script that embodies stasis and despair.

Asmus provides plenty of physical comedy as well, from awkward games of charades to high-speed hat tricks. But his Godot can also find humor in stillness: Hamilton and Finney repeatedly stand side-by-side, wearing that blankly patient expression you see in elevators or at urinals worldwide.

Timing proves the crucial quality to this Godot. Inane lines dangle awkwardly until Vladimir finally groans, "Will night never come?" for maximum comic effect. Other moments convey an almost Zenlike peace, like the way the messenger boy (Evan O'Reilly) slowly departs in perfect counterpoint to the gradually rising moon.

Hamilton and Finney remain a terrific comic team, with relaxed chemistry that implies the characters' shared history. Finney makes Estragon earthy, childish and fatalistic, and whenever Vladimir reminds him, "We're waiting for Godot," he hisses a weary, exasperated, "Ah, yes." Hamilton gives his lines a sardonic snap but also captures the role's optimism. The play rises and falls with Vladimir's hopes, and our hearts go out to Vladimir whenever he sets himself up for disappointment.

This Godot, however, truly belongs to the supporting duo of cruel Pozzo (Bruce Evers) and abused Lucky (Daniel Pettrow). The master and servant always command attention -- Pozzo wields a whip while Lucky shuffles on a leash -- yet here their tensions crackle. Evers makes Pozzo almost bipolar. He speaks with genteel courtesy to the tramps, barks savage orders at Lucky and succumbs to hilarious bouts of self-pity.

Pettrow turns Lucky into someone more complex than a long-suffering slave. He first stares at Pozzo with accusing eyes, but later he almost tenderly returns the leash and whip to Pozzo's hands. Lucky's famous speech of gibberish begins with the word "Given," but Pettrow starts by looking at Evers and drawing out the syllables to sound like "Give in." It's as if Lucky calls for Pozzo to surrender in an invisible power struggle.

Godot slows down in its second act, and the jokes retreat as feelings of failure and mortality permeate the atmosphere. The bittersweet nature of Vladimir and Estragon's relationship becomes quite moving -- they don't have anything but each other, but they're still happier when they're apart. At times, though, the volleying exchanges between the actors feel a little too mechanical.

Godot presents a situation of such archetypal simplicity that it can symbolize nearly anything, from personal emotions in the audience to complex theological issues. Since 7 Stages' production coincides with The Passion of the Christ's theatrical run, the small Christian details stand in sharp relief, like Vladimir's observations about the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus. Here, Godot seems less like a prospective employer than an absentee God, with the tramps holding out hope for salvation.

7 Stages' moving, melancholy production suggests that in an indifferent world, Vladimir and Estragon don't have anything better to do. And neither do the rest of us.



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