Author: Samuel Beckett
At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave. Tickets: VictoryGardens.org or 773-871-3000; $20-$40. Runs through: Dec. 15
For being the great, rule-breaking work of its time, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot can end up feeling forced into an unimaginative mold, every time you see itwith the same single tree and same bowler hats. The draw for performers and directors is what they can achieve with characters who are blank slates.
If each scenario and character is a void, then how those voids are filled is at your artistic discretion. ( Exceptions are women, who are not permitted to perform Waiting for Godot by Beckett's estate. Stage directions indicating a character's sex must be followed to the letter. ) Director Dennis Zacek has assembled a cast of notables for Victory Garden's late 2019 production, perhaps with the hope that that would be enough. It's a struggle to see why Chicago needs a version of Godot that is content to stay a void, and not challenge some of the dated conventions Beckett still insists upon.
Two menVladimir ( Larry Neumann Jr. ) and Estragon ( Michael Saad )exist in a bleak and vast nothingness, with only one reason to stay right where they are: the often delayed arrival of Godot. Until Godot arrives, the duo volleys between anticipation and dread for other contact, be it from Pozzo ( Steve Pickering ) and Lucky ( Nima Rakhshanifar ), an owner and slave, still insisting on/performing their dynamic duties without a social demand, or a boy ( Cooper Hoyt ) who heralds nothingness to come.
Saad is an endearing Estragon, with an unusual, buoyant physical presence. He is strongest when clowning, but sometimes cagey with moments of deepening emotional depth. The introduction of Nima Rakhshanifar's Lucky is a disturbingly compelling, and his mostly silent, bent posture presence brings a question to life: Why does subjugation exist here, and what responses does it elicit? I wish this production had a stronger opinion about the degradation it showcases. Neumann Jr.'s Vladimir is a doting caretaker and task-minder, and Steve Pickering brings bombast and impatience to the role of Pozzo, both actors doing a stellar job keeping pace in roles recently vacated by other actors.
Waiting For Godot could still be visionary in the right hands. It could confront the limits/exclusions often present in theater of the absurd. It could question the rules of not questioning the author's rules. However, the creative team at Victory Gardens was too bogged down in the logistics of getting this production on its feet to ask the question of why they wanted to. This Waiting for Godot has opted out of the hard conversations Chicago is currently having about prioritizing the work of women and people of color in stage productions. Opting out is quite a plum privilege to exercise, isn't it?