One of the reasons Waiting for Godot has endured for 60 years, and is one of the key works of drama from the 20th century, is that Samuel Beckett's script appears to be infinitely malleable. It requires a tree and a quintet of performers. Beyond that, it's all up to the director and the actors to find what form they can.
In Bain Boehlke's vibrant and muscular new production at the Jungle, Waiting for Godot accents the first part of the title. Estragon and Vladimir, on some subconscious level, know that their whole existence depends on holding the fort for a figure who is (spoiler alert!) never, ever going to come.
In this world, it is up to our characters to fill the time as best they can, reminding each other of what has happened in the past or potential ways to end their misery. In this context, their musings on hanging themselves from the tree — crafted in this case out of debris you might find on the wrong side of the tracks — aren't so much serious thought as they are part of the ritual. Likely every day, at some point, they talk about ending it all, probably discussing who should go first and whether any rope they have is heavy enough.
With that in place, the question becomes: How do you craft a show that will hook the audience and carry them along when the show isn't going any place in particular?
Part of the answer is putting strong actors in the roles. Nathan Keepers (Estragon) and Jim Lichtscheidl (Vladimir) bring the goods. Both have strong comic timing and well-developed physical skills, which bring out the tinges of vaudeville Beckett has sprinkled throughout the script. (In one delightful moment, the two characters do a bit of exercising, which looks like some kind of vamp a standup comic would have done in the first part of the 20th century.)
Beyond that, the actors show us the deep connection between the characters. They stay together, in this case, not because of fate or inertia, but because they care so much about their friendship. Here are two people so deeply entwined that they will wait, filthy and hungry, but together.
The counterpoint comes from two travelers, Pozzo and Lucky, who show up during both days that we see. Unlike Estragon and Vladimir, this pair are certainly not equals, as Pozzo leads Lucky around on a rope and refers to him as "slave." Allen Hamilton, who has the kind of deep, reassuring voice that could sell insurance on TV, adds considerable gravitas to Pozzo, who easily can come off as a thundering fool. Charles Schuminski as Lucky doesn't have much to say, but the pain at his plight comes through clearly. His one extended speech — it's a single sentence that runs for more than two pages in my copy of the play — is a tour de force for the players, as our heroes go from intrigued to horrified to frantic as the speech shows no sign of ending. (It's fitting that in this haberdashery-obsessed play the key to getting Lucky to stop comes down to his hat.)
Pozzo and Lucky are as deeply tied as Estragon and Vladimir, but they lack the bonds of friendship to make their ordeal bearable. They are like party guests who ignore repeated hints that it is long past time to go. Still, after the ordeal, Vladimir notes, "That passed the time."
Boehlke's concept, direction, and stage design — the bare stage builds on the idea that this could be happening anyplace, from a deserted field in France to under an off-ramp in Minneapolis — blend beautifully with the places the actors want to go with their characters. Everything ties into the simplicity of the staging, as the company isn't trying to uncover any deep truths about the nature of humanity or the eventual meaning of life. Well, maybe a bit of the second, though not with the profundity of Truth, but more as what people do to survive, endure, and even thrive. "They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." That's not resignation, but a demand to live.