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Spare set, strong performances fuel ICA’s ‘Godot’

Susan Saccoccia | 9/30/2009, 6:16 a.m.
The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of “Waiting for Godot” last weekend at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, provided a fresh rendering of the play based on playwright Samuel Beckett’s simple stage directions: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

When Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005, news of the federal government’s ineptitude was driven home by images of stranded families waving from rooftops. The following year, the Classical Theatre of Harlem staged an acclaimed, Katrina-inspired production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in a swimming pool on a Manhattan rooftop.

In 2007, the performance’s director, Classical co-founder Chris McElroen, brought the production to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Performed on the steps of a flooded house, the five nights of free performances drew thousands of people, including many who had lost loved ones and homes in the hurricane and its ill-managed aftermath.

Now on tour with their production, McElroen and his company staged two performances of “Waiting for Godot” last weekend at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA). The inventive production uses Beckett’s stage directions as a springboard for a fresh rendering of the play. Like a jazz improvisation, it finds new, moving currents in a timeless classic — and mines its urgency.

Produced in settings ranging from war-torn Sarajevo and San Quentin State Prison to Broadway, Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright and author Beckett’s 1953 masterpiece was, at first, slow to take hold. Its American debut at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami in 1956, promoted as “the laugh hit of two continents,” starred the great Bert Lahr and drew audiences expecting a conventional comedy. At intermission, they left in droves. Two who stayed and admired the production were playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Saroyan.

Performing the role of Estragon, Lahr — who played the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” — recognized the vaudeville humor of the play’s main characters, their bowler hats a nod to the famed comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. He also heard the echoes of music-hall repartee in their verbal duels, which vary in tone from coarse to lyrical.

Beckett gave “Waiting for Godot” the subtitle “a tragicomedy in two acts,” and once told a director that it is about “the laughter and the tears.” It portrays the pared-down essentials of human experience — the agony of waiting with uncertainty for deliverance and the capacity for laughter in the darkness.

Its spare structure begins with the most basic unit of human society — two people. They are tramps who have nothing but their hats, their tattered clothing and each other. The setting described in Beckett’s stage directions reads simply: “A country road. A tree. Evening.”

As they await the unknown but indispensable Godot, the tramps have two visitors, the autocrat Pozzo and his enslaved companion, Lucky. The play’s two acts take place over two days, and start and end with the same words: “‘Well, shall we go?’ ‘Yes, let’s go.’ They do not move.”

The traveling production’s stage set took advantage of the ICA theater’s floor-to-ceiling views of Boston Harbor. A levee-like barrier spanned the windows behind the stage, turning the water into a backdrop. Mid-stage, two paths crossed near a skeletal tree. Trash surrounded the set’s two structures — the filthy remains of a bathroom, its tub and toilet intact, and the sloping frame and front stoop of a destroyed house.