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Waiting for Godot

Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)


Waiting for Godot


By Deirdre Donovan


Theatre for a New Audience's glorious new revival of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot strikes just the right absurdist notes as it walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy.  Helmed by TFANA's resident director Arin Arbus and starring Michael Shannon and Paul Sparks as Estragon and Vladimir, respectively, this production will have you in stitches one moment and tears the next.


The action takes place on a thrust stage in the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, allowing the audience to be up close and personal with the actors.  Riccardo Hernández's minimalist set includes a bare-branched tree, an earthen mound that serves as a stool, and an empty road with a yellow center strip bisecting it.


True to its absurdist roots, Waiting for Godot has no plot.  But it brings before us two down-at-heel tramps, the grounded and practical Estragon and the more philosophically-minded Vladimir, who meet near a tree every evening, killing time as they wait for a savior named Godot to show up. 



Although this Beckett drama, originally written in French between October 1948 and January 1949, is always a crowd-pleaser, the real reason to visit this new version at the Polansky Shakespeare Center is to see Shannon and Sparks in the leading roles.  Indeed, these artists have that elusive thing called "good chemistry" on stage.  But, then again, the actors are old friends in real life and have a long working history together as artists.  Their mutual projects include Waco, The Missing Person, Mud, and Boardwalk, not to mention the 2014 production of Ionesco's The Killer at TFANA.  Judging by their current performances in Brooklyn, they seem not only born to play the parts of Gogo and Didi (the nicknames for Estragon and Vladimir, respectively), but to play them opposite each other.


If Shannon and Sparks' acting is top-notch, Arbus's direction anchors the production.  In Jonathan Kalb's October 17, 2023, interview with Shannon and Sparks, "Maybe We're Frigging Immortals" (in the full digital program), Shannon comments that Arbus said at the first rehearsal that "she sees this as a play about couples." Little wonder that she keys into the theme of companionship in her new interpretation of Beckett's masterpiece.  In fact, one of the most poignant moments in the show is when Shannon's Estragon soulfully remarks to Vladimir: "Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can't tell them to you?"


Michael Shannon, Ajay Naidu (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)


While the central story focuses on the bleak situation of Gogo and Didi, the entrance of Pozzo (the superb Ajay Naidu) and Lucky (the able Jeff Biehl) midway through Act 1 ratchets up the action. Pozzo arrives like a circus ringmaster and Lucky his trained performing animal.  Naidu's Pozzo and Biehl's Lucky take one back to the days of vaudeville, with Naidu's Pozzo being the straight man and Biehl's Lucky being the fall guy.  Pozzo, in fact, will have Lucky first perform (woodenly) a dance and then have him think by delivering an oration (it's chockful of nonsensical phrases) for Estragon and Vladimir.  Things grow darker, however, when Estragon, pitying Lucky, tries to help him-and then promptly gets kicked by Lucky.  Indeed, in this play's world, a good deed sometimes can backfire.


Michael Shannon, Jeff Biehl, Paul Sparks, Ajay Naidu (Photo: Hollis King) 


To round out the couple conceit, there's a Boy-and his offstage brother-who materialize at the end of Act 1.  The Boy (the role usually played by Toussaint Francois Battiste was performed by Cricket Brown at the Saturday evening performance that I attended) acts as Godot's messenger.  And, with a deadpan expression worthy of Buster Keaton, the lad will deliver a message that will make Estragon and Vladimir's heart sink: "Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening, but surely to-morrow."   Little wonder that Estragon and Vladimir sometimes contemplate suicide as they wait for Godot.


Estragon and Vladimir are tough cookies, however.  And, in spite of being disappointed by Godot's message, Vladimir smartly engages the lad in conversation.  And he soon learns that the Boy tends the goats for Godot, and that his brother takes care of the sheep.  In the next beat, however, the Boy reveals that his brother is beaten by Godot, although he himself is spared from any violence.  But, before Vladimir can glean more information from the Boy, the youngster dashes away.


Seventy years on from its Paris premiere at Théâtre de Babylon, Waiting for Godot is still intriguing audiences.  Its cyclical conversations between Estragon and Vladimir are not so different than those one might overhear on New York sidewalks today.  While folks in Beckett's day discussed the atrocities of World War 2, today we talk about the horrors of the Gaza War.


Long delayed due to the pandemic, Arbus' production finally has settled in at the Polansky Shakespeare Center.  Those theatergoers who have been waiting for a first-rate revival of the iconic play, should hop on the subway to Brooklyn to see Shannon and Sparks shine in this Waiting for Godot.   Catch it now, or catch it never.


Waiting for Godot

Through December 3.

At the Polansky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn.

For more information, visit