WAITING FOR GODOT, Goodman Theatre. “Birth was the death of him”: terse to the point of cruelty, Samuel Beckett devours the human experience in six words. His minimalist masterpiece takes nearly three hours to achieve the same result, but Beckett succeeded in his lifelong task: to “find the form that will accommodate the mess” of life on earth. In his forlorn, codependent bums, who define themselves by what doesn’t happen, Beckett reduces hope to habit and persistence to folly; 46 years after its debut, Waiting for Godot still thrills as it transforms our aspirations to dignity and destiny into superb vaudeville. Michael Maggio’s multicultural staging–Goodman Theatre’s first production of the seminal antitragedy–is richly orthodox, respecting the play’s physical and gallows humor while never undercutting the pathos of the bums’ love/hate relationship, a reflection of humanity.

As the protective, sententiously humanistic Vladimir, Andre De Shields works overtime to hold on to whatever reality he and Estragon can agree on. Thereby freed to whine rhapsodically, Ross Lehman’s delightfully affected Estragon swoops down on every absurdity with perfect timing and a wicked rubber face. The wacky choreography, by J.D. Jenkins and Julie Greenberg, wonderfully defines their desperation. Tim Edward Rhoze plays Pozzo with a pompous ferocity that necessarily forfeits any sympathy we might feel for his suffering in the second act, while Lazaro Perez delivers Lucky’s ragtag “thinking” tour de force with splendid if unfocused abandon. Donald Holder’s starkly pictorial cyclorama adds nature to Riccardo Hernandez’s surreal set.

–Lawrence Bommer