Sunday, January 20, 2019

149 (2018-2019): Review: WAITING FOR GODOT (seen January 19, 2019)

“Shmuel Beckett’s Vartn af Godot

George Xenos’s set for the Yiddish-language version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at Theatre at the 14th Street Y is a drab expanse backed by black curtains in front of fronted by an oblong acting space. The only scenic embellishments are a pile of burlap bags at one side, containing who knows what, and the rusting, skeletal remains of a white, backyard umbrella, its cloth-less, naked ribs protruding from its center pole. (Beckett’s laconic description is merely: “A country road. A tree.”)

David Mandelbaum, Eli Rosen. Photo: Dina Raketa.
Nearby are two heavily bearded, bowler-hatted men, costumed by Xenos. The tiny, older one’s white beard is matched by a shower of white hair falling from his balding pate; the taller, somewhat younger, gray-haired one, wears a scruffy suit that’s not nearly as raggedly bedraggled as that of his shabbier companion.
David Mandelbaum, Eli Rosen. Photo: Dina Raketa.
Then the older one says “Me ken gornisht tee-en” (“Nothing to be done”) and the New Yiddish Rep’s very well-acted production of Beckett’s path-breaking postwar tragicomedy—originally produced in French in 1948 before being translated into English in 1954—is off and not exactly running. The frequently complaining, white-haired alte kaker is Estragon a.k.a. Gogo (David Mandelbaum, the company’s artistic director). His more composed friend is Vladimir a.k.a. Didi (Eli Rosen). They’re waiting, and will continue to wait, for someone named Godot.
David Mandelbaum, Gera Sandler, Richard Saudek, Eli Rosen. Photo: Dina Raketa.
This revival, directed by Ronit Muszkatblit, is New York’s second look at Shane Baker’s translation. Baker, a non-Jew from Kansas City, MO, who’s also an actor, played Didi in the New Yiddish Rep’s 2013 premiere of his translation, directed by Moshe Yassur. For some reason, Baker, whose personal story is fascinating, doesn’t get a bio in the program, but you can read about him here.  
David Mandelbaum. Photo: Dina Raketa.
Somehow, Beckett’s familiar, plotless depiction of Gogo and Didi’s existence as displaced persons in the bleak wasteland of a possibly God-less universe takes on a new life when spoken in Yiddish (with the accent in “Godot” falling on the first syllable). This holds true through their duologues and when they encounter the ruthless Pozzo (Gera Sandler) and his miserably treated lackey, Lucky (Richard Saudek), as well as the Boy (Noam Sandler alternating with Myron Tregubov), a child sent as a messenger from Godot, who declares “he will surely come tomorrow.”
Eli Rosen, Richard Saudek, Gera Sandler. Photo: Dina Raketa.
An aura of Jewish suffering, even with overtones of the Holocaust, pervades the performance as the men struggle to keep their spirits up, to pass the time, and to survive until Godot arrives, which it becomes clear will never happen.

Each performance is carefully molded, making moment-to-moment sense of Beckett’s famously enigmatic writing. Despite the often-cloudy intentions and situations, the actors are grittily, even naturalistically, believable. When, for example, Pozzo eats a greasy piece of chicken and discards the bone on the floor, as well as a nearby morsel, Gogo doesn't hesitate to retrieve and finish them off.
Noam Sandler. Photo: Dina Raketa.
A principal drawback for anyone who’s seen multiple productions of Waiting for Godot will be how dreary, even dispirited, much of this version seems, partly because of its low-keyed, pause-filled pacing. Beckett was strongly influenced by vaudeville comedians and the best revivals of the play, like the Broadway one starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart a few years ago, can be hilariously funny as the men’s music hall shtick becomes emblematic of their survival tactics in this cruel world.

On the other hand, whereas Billy Crudup’s Lucky in the McKellen-Stewart production was technically accomplished but not especially memorable, Richard Saudek offers here a masterful interpretation of this difficult role. It requires him to mainly stand around endlessly, bent over like an old, beaten dray horse, and then to deliver at top speed one of the most difficult, opaque speeches in the dramatic repertoire.
David Mandelbaum. Photo: Dina Raketa.
His sadly stooping posture and hopeless, vacant eyes, staring out from beneath a droopy gray wig, as he lugs Pozzo’s belongings, a rope dangling from his neck, are startlingly contrasted with his spewing forth Lucky’s shouted tirade of seeming non sequiturs. You can get an idea of this remarkable clown’s mimic abilities from this clip, which has nothing to do with Godot.
Richard Saudek. Photo: Dina Raketa.
Even with such fine performances, this Waiting for Godot can drag, especially when its comedy is muted and you have to read fuzzy English titles from a modest-sized upstage monitor for two and a half hours (with one intermission). “How time flies when one has fun,” says Didi. In this production, not so much.


Theater at the 14th Street Y
344 E. 14th St., NYC
Through January 27