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Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Lucky Steals Show in Waiting For Godot

Hope and despair, slapstick comedy and profound philosophical musings, each are abound in quick succession in Samuel Beckett’s iconic and mysterious play Waiting for Godot.

Irish acting company Druid is performing their rendition of the hard-to-interpret play at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through May 20. The metaphorical mystery in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot leaves an endless amount of room for interpretation, but Druid’s rendition is certain to keep audiences laughing as much as it will make them think.

The play tells the story of two tramps, seemingly stranded on a barren countryside road. Vladimir (nicknamed Didi, played by Marty Rea), a usually cheerful intellectual and Estragon (nicknamed Gogo, played by Aaron Monaghan), the wearier of the two. The pair bicker, play games and tell stories endlessly, while they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. During the eager, sometimes hopeless, wait, the tone alternates between heartbreaking and hilarious.

“I think Beckett wants us to go through all the different emotions in this play. There are some very sad, emotional moments and kind of a despair at times but then he does the opposite, there’s great hope and great love and great laughs at times at ourselves and our existence,” actor Garrett Lombard says.

The two tramps, draped in shabby clothes and plagued with ill-fitting boots and itchy hats, encounter only three other characters: Pozzo (Rory Nolan), his slave named Lucky (Lombard) and an unnamed boy (Malcolm Fuller).

The tramps wonder about and at times judge Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky, who is constantly burdened with a stool, a basket, a suitcase full of sand and a rope around his neck.

“[Lucky is] a very subservient character, very low-status kind of guy, and he basically wants to please his master by doing his job of carrying his bags and giving him his coat and his stool and his whip and whatnot as best as he can,” Lombard says.

Perhaps the character most difficult to interpret in Waiting for Godot, Lucky stumbles around the stage, answering to Pozzo’s every beck and call, without saying a word – until his famous, breathtaking monologue that earned a raucous round of applause from the awestruck audience.

“He comes out with this incredible, mad, long, stream of consciousness speech, about the human existence and what we have ascertained about trying to explain this and trying to explain the universe and ends up, during the speech, almost losing his mind completely,” Lombard says.

The monologue nearly drives Pozzo, Didi and Gogo out of their minds as well.

This landmark moment makes preparing for the role of Lucky a colossally strenuous process. In addition to his monologue, the character spends most his time either hunched over or flopping down in exhaustion. According to Lombard, prepping for the character required a lot of stretching and staying in the best possible shape.

Apart from the physical aspects, the getting in the mind of the character was an isolating process, Lombard says. Lucky is constantly serving Pozzo and does deliver an enormous speech, but he never actually banters with other characters.

“It’s a bit of a lonely process. You don’t get to have the kind of fun that Didi and Gogo have in the rehearsal room. But it’s a really interesting one to work on as an actor, even if it was a little bit lonely at times,” Lombard says.

Critics have debated the symbolism of Lucky’s name, as well as his role. Some say Lucky is aptly named because unlike any other characters, he knows what his purpose is – to serve Pozzo. The name could also be sarcastic, which is in line with the play’s dark humor.

Catch the show until May 20 at the Lansburgh Threatre. Tickets start at $44 and can be purchased here. More information can be found at www.shakespearetheatre.org.

STC’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo: Scott Suchman
Photo: Scott Suchman

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Give Depth to STC’s Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may have famously failed to play upon Hamlet as a pipe, but at Shakespeare Theatre Company, they firmly fingered all my stops. The production is STC’s latest take on Hamlet, at Sidney Harman Hall through March 4, and it is one which I cannot recommend enough.

At the theater, I speak with Ryan Spahn and Kelsey Rainwater, who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively. The two delve into their characters (down to their course of study at Wittenberg), regale me with stories of the side jobs actors work and explore that je ne sais quois that makes this Hamlet great. The readily apparent distinction of their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that Guildenstern is a woman, but the more salient distinction is the complexity of their take; though it is cool that Guildenstern is a woman, because why not?

“We had to figure out what we were going to do,” Spahn tells me, “because the trap of this duo is that they can be clowny, and only that.”

To give greater depth to their characters, they took their time in mining the duo’s relationship with Hamlet.

“At first I thought we were just good friends who had fallen out of touch,” Spahn continues. “But then as it developed, I [came to] feel like we were really good friends. But we were also jealous of him because he had it so easy because he comes from such wealth.”

“And we did not,” Rainwater adds for emphasis.

Spahn and Rainwater have a way of picking up where the other leaves off. Spahn continues.

“So we had 10 or 12 years of friendship with him where that [tension] grated on us.”

Rainwater adds, “We understood each other in a way which Hamlet never understood us. It did start out like we’re all chums, we’re all on equal footing. But then once outside of school, we realized that that’s not it at all, that we don’t belong in his world.”

Spahn says that’s also the tricky part with this plot point.

“We’re all just friends, so why turn on [Hamlet]? For us, we realized we’re almost angry at him because he had it so easy. Even if no one in the audience can tell, it grounds us and our path in something that we very much need to do.”

Rainwater agrees.

“This is our chance for success – finally.”

Spahn tells me that they draw on personal experience for the part.

“I think we can just relate to this as actors and artists. When you have close friends or loved who skyrocket to success, or even something so simple as you wanted a job and someone else got it…you deal with jealousy so easily in this field, that anytime I can use it onstage helps me in my real life to not feel it. You can get it out. I think we talked about that.”

He turns to Rainwater and she nods. I follow up by asking them what they studied at Wittenberg with Hamlet. Rainwater laughs and goes first.

“I like to think I studied philosophy. Like Hamlet’s really good at this, at philosophizing, so maybe I should try, and then I took the class and realized I was way over my head.”

Spahn responds deadpan.

“I assumed we did something like poli sci, [something] that was really general so that when we graduated, people were like, ‘What do we do with you? You have no skills.’”

It turns out that this is not far from the truth in Spahn’s case. In New York, he applied to a temp agency and was told he had no skills. Still, the interviewer invited him in for an hour to see if he could figure out how to work an office phone. He went in and could not.

“I went home and I was like, ‘Well that didn’t work.’ I eventually went back to school, but I never went back to a temp agency.”

Spahn and Rainwater speak openly, and it’s this clarity that marks their acting. Michael Urie plays Hamlet in a similar vein. Spahn and Rainwater describe this as the contemporary style that’s popular right now.

“You’re trying to be in the moment,” Rainwater says, “to listen and to respond to what’s given to you.”

“There’s less showmanship,” Spahn adds.  

This contrasts with the acting of Keith Baxter, who plays the Grave Digger, the Player King and the Ghost. Baxter once acted alongside Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight, and his style is more performative and gestural (re: classical).

Spahn says having such different and cross-generational styles of acting is something director Michael Kahn was intent upon. And it works. According to Spahn, it works because of the cohesiveness of the company. He cites that cohesiveness as the source of the play’s success, too.

“One of the most successful things we did – particularly because there are so many different acting styles – is getting a cast of 20-25 people in the same play that you believe actually know each other; that they’re performing in the same style of production. Often you’ll see things and it feels like suddenly we’re in a different play, and this one doesn’t feel that way, and that’s a hard thing to do. I think it speaks to how well this company gets along.”

“We party all the time,” Rainwater says, though the bro voice she adopts and the way she laughs says otherwise. Spahn picks up what she’s saying though.

“We’re sort of all really into each other. Even Keith Baxter knocked on our door last night at 12:15 in the morning and was like, ‘I was having dinner with somebody and they liked the play. G’night!’” he says, putting on a sabled English accent.

The play is one which I’m sure my editor would prefer I’d quit gushing about at this point, but there is so much about it which recommends itself. The use of technology is subtle and fluent. The actors, and in particular Michael Urie, are funny. The whole is captivating and convincing. And Hamlet only runs through March 4, so you better get your tickets ASAP. For tickets and more information, visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230; www.shakespearetheatre.org