CT20 Ensemble

at Cafe Voltaire

It would be hard to imagine a place more hospitable to Samuel Beckett’s bleak worldview than the dark, gray, musty basement of Cafe Voltaire. Certainly the low ceiling, bare-bones lighting, and uneven concrete floor seem more congenial to Beckett’s work than some cheerful, clean, prosperous, expensively lit place like the Blackstone.

Nevertheless, as director Peter Cieply et al prove in this sadly uneven production of Waiting for Godot, having a great performance space isn’t everything.

In the last year or two Cafe Voltaire has been home to a surprisingly large number of successful non-Equity shows, among them Tight & Shiny’s Marie and Bruce, Act Now Productions’ The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, and Barto Productions’ marvelous rendition of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which Cieply codirected. He clearly thought it a good idea to return to Cafe Voltaire’s cellar with the work of another word-drunk Celt. And it might have been. But unfortunately he’s failed to do the one thing that guaranteed the success of Under Milk Wood–or, for that matter, of the Gate Theatre’s recent brilliant production of Godot at the Blackstone. And that is to find a cast consistently capable of making Beckett’s words sing.

Especially early on, much of Beckett’s dazzling wordplay falls flat, thanks in no small part to the way J. Scott Ament and Kevin Theis, as Vladimir and Estragon, overplay the physical comedy, desperately trying to win big laughs with Beckett’s subtle wit. The most striking muffed reading occurs early in the first act, though here the problem is underplaying. Vladimir, praising Estragon’s way with words, says, “You should have been a poet.” To which Estragon replies, “I was,” then gesturing toward his rags adds, “Isn’t that obvious?” When John Murphy delivered this retort in the Gate Theatre production, he earned a deep, roaring laugh. When Theis delivered the line, without emphasis of any kind, he got a confused silence.

Once these two stop trying so hard and settle into their characters they have considerably more success with Beckett’s text. This settling in, however, takes them way too long. It isn’t really until the start of the second act that Ament’s chirpy martinet Vladimir and Theis’s sad-sack Estragon begin to play off each other, offering the well-polished patter of seasoned music-hall comedians.

Until then, it’s left to Will Schutz and Murray McKay, as the bullying blowhard Pozzo and his much-abused slave Lucky, to goose this flagging production, which they do with varying degrees of success. Schutz’s cartoonish acting and comically expressive voice are great in small doses. However, a little of his over-the-top acting goes a long way. He left me begging for less.

By contrast, McKay’s take on the mostly silent, pathetic Lucky only grows more intriguing as the play goes on. In fact, McKay’s rendition of what is easily the most difficult speech in all of Godot–Lucky’s incredibly long, intentionally tedious nonsensical monologue (“Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua” and so on)–is nothing short of inspired. McKay couples eccentric, jerky dancelike movements with a frenetic reading of Beckett’s words to create an absolutely hilarious performance; it ends far too quickly.

Sadly, nothing else in this version of Godot comes close to the striking originality of that scene. Even Philip M. Lombard’s simple set, with irrelevant elements lifted directly from Magritte’s paintings–clouds the color of dappled skies and a tree that looks from a distance like a gigantic leaf–seems more forced than inspired. It’s as if everyone involved in this production, except Murray McKay, lacked the patience to wait for Godot and so invented what they hoped was a plausible substitute.