Redemption is beyond their reach in a post-Katrina ‘Godot’
“Waiting for Godot’’ takes on unexpected immediacy and poignancy in the extraordinary Classical Theatre of Harlem production that played just two performances at the Institute of Contemporary Art this weekend. Although Samuel Beckett’s classic is often labeled abstract and inscrutable, director Christopher McElroen’s decision to set the play in the post-Katrina, Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans anchors it firmly in piles of debris, ravaged homes, and shattered lives. We watch and wonder with Vladimir and Estragon as they pass the time waiting - for rescue, for redemption, for life to begin again or to finally end.
Considering the setting, it’s no surprise Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo, as they call each other) are stuck in this devastated landscape, awaiting the arrival of a mysterious man who’s supposed to answer a question for them that they can’t even remember asking. Our associations with the bungled rescue and recovery in New Orleans can’t help but resonate through this production without overwhelming it.
The touches are subtle - we see hints of bureaucratic inefficiency, political infighting, even a hopeful glance upward (at a helicopter?) that just passes by. These New Orleans residents can’t afford to miss Godot, even though they’re not sure what he can do for them.
The easy familiarity between Billy Eugene Jones (Vladimir) and J Kyle Manzay (Estragon) eliminates the characters’ strangeness, and bring us up close and personal to two individuals who’ve lost their moorings. Jones gives Vladimir just the right amount of confidence, intelligence, and self-assurance, which is all the more disconcerting since he has nothing to be confident about. Manzay is distinctly distracted as Estragon struggles to stay focused: falling asleep, forgetting what he was just told, trying to remember he exists at all.
Every moment is choreographed with a sense of flow and the production has an enchanting musicality, from the graveyard ditty Vladimir struggles to get through to the Michael Jackson dance moves he performs to a hummed version of “Billie Jean.’’
McElroen acknowledges the music-hall comedy of the play, but slides quickly between contemporary pop-culture references and old-fashioned vaudeville tricks (juggling, flipping, and passing the derby hats they wear). Because this landscape is anything but abstract, a creeping desperation leaks through the humor. Pozzo (Christian Rummel) and his slave Lucky (Glenn Gordon) make a dramatic entrance to a wailing siren. When Didi and Gogo hear this, they immediately get down on their knees and put their hands behind their heads, preparing to be arrested. That assumption is a depressing testament to the role of authority in their world, and in our own.
Later, an attempt to play with a deflated basketball creates a powerful image. The ball may not bounce - in fact, it lands with a pathetic thud in the midst of the trash - but Didi and Gogo keep trying to find reasons to keep going. “We’re inexhaustible,’’ Didi says, and after all, Godot may come tomorrow.
WAITING FOR GODOT
Play by Samuel Beckett
Directed by: Christopher McElroen. Set, Troy Hourie. Costumes, Kimberly Glennon. Lighting, Aaron Black.
Presented by: The Classical Theatre of Harlem
At: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Saturday