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Review: Hilarity and despair mix well in wonderful new take on ‘Godot’ (Includes first-hand account)

With this cast and the confident, playful direction of Daniel Brooks – who’s acclaimed for his past collaborations with Daniel MacIvor, and who helmed a daring, radical update of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for Soulpepper last year – Samuel Beckett’s 1953 absurdist classic has a new life, mixing broad farce, existential despair and the feeling of a recurring dream. Yet unlike with the Ibsen production, Brooks wisely doesn’t try to push any new meaning on Waiting for Godot: he strips it down to the bowler-clad basics and lets the audience interpret what they see for themselves. It’s a philosophical or political allegory if you choose to see it that way, but at its heart, it’s just about two old guys waiting for a dude who never shows up.

You could call Godot, which opened on Thursday, a kind of Groundhog Day for intellectuals – except that the characters don’t really change or learn anything as they repeat the same experiences over and over. Vladimir (Diego Matamoros), or “Didi”, and Estragon (Oliver Dennis), or “Gogo”, are trapped in a universe where they have to wait every day by a near-bare tree for the mysterious Mr. Godot, who is supposed to come and “save” them. They pass the time any way they can, from arguing to philosophizing to considering whether they should just hang themselves from the tree. Every day, they get a visit from the passing Pozzo (Rick Roberts) and his perpetually abused slave, Lucky (Alex McCooeye), which serves only to reinforce the meaninglessness of the world they all live in. Every evening, a young boy (Richie Lawrence) arrives to tell them that Godot isn’t coming today, but “surely tomorrow.”

That’s about it for plot, but Beckett’s dialogue always rings with wit and pathos, and Brooks blocks the whole thing out with plenty of energy and tonal variety, so it’s never boring, even for a newbie to Beckett’s vision. While there are moments of Laurel-and-Hardy-like slapstick – like when Didi and Gogo scramble for a place to hide, or when Didi tries to help Gogo put his boots on – there’s also an atmosphere of hopelessness that never fully goes away. That may have something to do with the play’s ghostly visual motif; Lorenzo Savoini’s set is full of dirty grey, including the floor, the tree and the side walls, while costume designer Michelle Tracey clothes the aging characters in ratty tramp suits. You can almost feel dust in the air when the curtain opens.

Matamoros and Dennis play their relationship like an old married couple, alternating between habitual bickering and a desperate inability to abandon each other, and you always sense that they’ve been doing this together for a long time, maybe even years or decades. Didi is the more optimistic and accepting of the pair, although Matamoros’ portrayal leaks restrained exasperation in his delivery of lines like, “Will night never come?” Dennis’ version of Gogo, meanwhile, seems ready to explode into screaming lunacy at times – his reaction to Didi’s repeated “We’re waiting for Godot” reminder gets more anguished and frustrated as the second act goes on. Both actors commit themselves to the roles, in both a physical and mental sense, as if Beckett had written complex, detailed backstories for them.

But Roberts is also very strong as Pozzo – who initially seems like a strange cross of a circus master and a cowboy – and McCooeye has an unnerving, pitiful effect as the suffering Lucky; standing taller than the others and staring silently, he’s a little reminiscent of Lurch from The Addams Family, but creepier. The pained look on his face when Pozzo cruelly yanks the rope around his neck makes you feel the impact of the tug. (The white makeup, long hair, weird dancing and bondage imagery make McCooeye seem like an albino goth kid, actually.)

Again, Brooks resists the urge to force any obvious external interpretation onto Beckett’s template, although there’s a moment when all four main characters are lying on the floor after a series of falling mishaps and Didi and Gogo seem to take on Christlike poses. It’s tempting to see easy symbolism in that, but Beckett himself likely would have scoffed at it. This staging is better approached – and enjoyed – with minimal-to-no scholastic analysis, because the performances and pacing are so good. You don’t have to understand what’s going on here to immerse yourself into these characters’ plights; its themes and emotions are universal. (Anybody who rides the TTC regularly is intimately familiar with an eternal, pointless wait for something that may never arrive.)

Whether it’s about hope or despair, comedy or tragedy, absurdity or deep meaning, Soulpepper’s new production may be the Godot that you’ve been waiting for. For a play once considered the oddest of the avant-garde, it can be a bittersweet crowd-pleaser when it’s done right.

Waiting for Godot runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until October 7.

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