Waiting for Godot, Druid at Shakespeare Theatre Company

A country road. A tree.  Two brief appearances by a moon.  Bowler hats.

There are inevitabilities in the staging of a play by Samuel Beckett--few authors of the twentieth century have estates so ready to crack down on any creative variations in How We Do Beckett, from any slight adjustments to the setting, to casting actors of color or gender swapping, to daring to use music where no music is specified in the stage directions.  Producing a Beckett play is a declaration of a willingness to work within a strict set of rules, where the restrictions provoke, rather than restrain, artists' creativity.

Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon in the Druid production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Garry Hynes. Photo Matthew Thompson.

When the audience enters the Lansburgh Theatre, it becomes clear that excellent work can be done within narrow strictures, based on the gorgeous set by Francis O'Connor (also serving ably as costume designer).  Cracked, dry earth contrasts with the smoothness of rock, and a stark and spindly tree combines with the rest to be instantly striking, telling us exactly what play we're here to see, while also being beautiful art in their own right. As the evening progresses, we likewise see the range of James Ingalls's excellent lighting design, blanketing the stage in atmospheres as varied and rich as Beckett's text. Rounding out the artistic team, Greg Clark's subtle sound design enhances the production, while Nick Winston's movement direction gives glorious precision to the actors (I could genuinely watch these actors hop into their looking-into-the-distance poses again and again).

While Druid's production of Waiting for Godot has a tall task before it, we are lucky to be in the hands of esteemed director Garry Hynes and her capable ensemble of actors. Led by Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan as Vladimir and Estragon, with Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard as Pozzo and Lucky (with Harrison Wright and Malcolm Fuller alternating as the Boy), Hynes's production takes on Godot with near-perfect aim.  Nolan and Lombard's turns as a pompous Pozzo and pitiable, subjugated Lucky give just the right touches of expansive oddity into the play.  Rea and Monaghan, as the eternal pair of titular wait-ers Didi and Gogo, bring wit, physical deftness, and a devastating vulnerability to Beckett's characters; their performances ground us in the play's strange and unsettling waters.

In some ways, Waiting for Godot is a time capsule of a play, carefully (and litigiously) preserved by Beckett's estate, unchanged and unchanging for over fifty years.  So often, the glory of a classical theatre is how every production can find its own way into an established piece, picking and choosing between well-trod paths and blazing a new trail through the undergrowth that could be brilliant or a disaster with no way to tell until you're already there what it's going to turn out to be.  With Beckett's work, we don't get that opportunity; the paths haven't changed much since the 1950s. Within that time capsule, however, we can still see productions that show us why artists are drawn to Godot, even when they aren't allowed to have their wicked way with the text.  Hynes brings us just such an exemplary production, and DC audiences would do well to take advantage of it.

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