The Man Who Wasn't There

Mention Waiting for Godot and you will often get the sigh and the eye roll. Oh, that old thing. What is it about anyway? What does it mean? It's weird. It's long. It makes no sense.

The eye-rollers do have a point. Godot playwright Samuel Beckett provides a pretty accurate description of his now-classic 1949 absurdist work in a line in Act 1: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" And there you have it, except for that last part. Awful, no. Static, yes. Not much action in Godot's dialogue-heavy two and a half hours. The title character is mentioned repeatedly but never arrives. The leads, a pair of Chaplinesque tramps named Vladimir (nicknamed Didi) and Estragon (called Gogo), wait around anyway, jabbering about food, suicide, worn-out shoes, kidney problems and cloud formations. They talk, they nap, they dance and do hat tricks. They consider leaving and never do. A man named Pozzo shows up, shouting abuse and dragging his slave, ironically named Lucky, on a rope. Lucky speaks once, in a long, unintelligible, unpunctuated rant about government and religion. At the end of each act, a small boy enters and announces that Mr. Godot will not be keeping his appointment but surely will tomorrow. The end.

There is no plot, no denouement, no resolution. There is no set other than a stump and a sad little tree that sprouts a few leaves in Act 2. There is no music, no change of costumes. Godot, a play mostly about what people do to pass the time, exists in a world without time. It is odd, but funny and compelling. It contains moments that are hauntingly profound and profoundly disturbing.

There are good reasons to see a good Godot. But be prepared to work a little. What happens in Godot happens in the language, and it can be difficult to absorb. Listen closely and you hear influences of Joyce and Artaud. Beckett blew up traditional theatrical convention by keeping action almost ridiculously transparent and words confusing and explosive. He fooled around with dialogue, writing streams of nonsensical conversation and unexpected blurts of silliness such as "knook" and "quaquaquaqua." He's fond of "ooze" and "pus" and "arse." Beckett's words, all 53 pages of them, land on the ear with snap, crackle and pop.

Risk Theater Initiative, a new company, is staging a high-quaquaquality and slight knooky production of Waiting for Godot right now on the bare floor in a back room of Deep Ellum's Sons of Hermann Hall. The cast of five is young but solid, bringing some impressive maturity to their performances. Director Marianne Galloway and her actors understand Beckett's characters and juggle the difficult language beautifully, wisely avoiding any forced interpretation of the script. Instead, the actors deliver the lines with natural rhythms that make it all sound perfectly normal and logical, even when it's not. If at times they rush things a bit, chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm. They're having fun, and so are we as we watch them.

In the two leading roles, Scott Milligan (Gogo) and James Gilbert (Didi) make a cracking good comedy team. Gilbert and Milligan, Milligan and Gilbert. It even sounds right. Physical opposites, Gilbert (the thin one) and Milligan (who looks a bit like Jack Black) bring Abbott and Costello to mind during Beckett's version of the "Who's on first?'' routine:

Didi: Where are your boots?

Gogo: I must have thrown them away.

Didi: When?

Gogo: I don't know.

Didi: Why?

Gogo: I don't know why I don't know!

Didi: No, I mean why did you throw them away?

Gogo: Because they were hurting me!

And round and round it goes. Godot was described long ago by a critic as "a mystery wrapped in an enigma.'' We are not meant to know precisely who these guys are or what they are talking about. Didi and Gogo might be souls caught in limbo, yearning for a God who never welcomes them. Or vagrants knocking around a barren city park until the shelter opens. They are as fidgety and rude and in love with their own voices as George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld, waiting endlessly for a table in that Chinese restaurant. What they yammer on about is of no more or less importance than the cell-phone conversations we eavesdrop on in public or the unscripted logorrhea of reality-TV participants. We can't help getting caught up in it.

Joining Gilbert and Milligan in Risk's production are William Harper as Pozzo, R. Bradford Smith as Lucky and the noble little Collin Davis as The Boy. They're all good, turning in well-crafted, passionate performances. And the spare space at the back of Hermann Hall creates a serene, uncluttered atmosphere that fits the simplicity of Godot just fine.

Speaking of good fits, there is nothing more painful than watching an actor play a character he's not physically right for. That's the main problem, but not the only one, with The Other Half Theatre Experience production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now winding up its run in the squalid little upstairs bistro in Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater. Playing the title role, Robert Rain, founder and director of The Other Half, looks like a hockey player in drag. Hedwig is supposed to have an angry inch, not a furious 30 extra pounds.

Hedwig is a bijou of a role that needs a special brand of performer to carry it off. Last fall at Kitchen Dog Theater, wiry, epicene Joey Steakley was ideal casting as the cross-gender East German who describes herself as an "internationally ignored song stylist." Steakley looks remarkably like John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the book of the show (music and lyrics by Stephen Trask) and starred in both the hit off-Broadway production and film version. It's not that Hedwig has to be played by someone who looks like Mitchell, or even like Steakley. It's that Hedwig, who wears '80s disco gear and a huge white-blond wig, should appear feminine enough to attract men and just male enough to be confusing.

The show is about blurred gender roles and what it means to find wholeness as a sexual outsider. In songs and monologues, Hedwig jokes and agonizes about his/her doomed relationships with an American G.I. and a young rock star (who has stolen Hedwig's best songs). She is a fragile creature who gains strength and determination during 90 minutes onstage.

Rain's Hedwig is all wrong, from his butch boots and big calves to his pot belly and beefy shoulders. He can sing, but his voice is an octave too low for this character. Steakley gave us a Hedwig that was part David Bowie, part Patti Smith. Rain's Hedwig is Bruce Willis/Martha Raye.

On the night reviewed, the production had more worries than just its miscast lead. Slide projections weren't working, and the band was listless, reducing rock songs to dirges. Rain tried to muscle up some excitement by milking the monologues, but he succeeded only in sweating so hard his heavy makeup ran off in rivulets. Hedwig, the wetrosexual.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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