This season, we've seen three women portray Medea in "The Medea Myth" and five people play Eliza, the escaping slave, in "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin.''
Now get ready for six Didis, in director Robert Findlay's re-interpretation of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot.'' "Godot" opens Wednesday in the Inge Theatre at Murphy Hall on the Kansas University campus.
Mind you, Findlay's decision to spread the long part among six female actresses had its roots in pragmatism as much as aesthetics.
"The woman I had cast originally as Didi came back and told me she was pregnant," said Findlay, a KU theater and film professor. "We had cast five other people, five women who would be scenery or the scenic crew. So we decided there were six scenes in the play, and a different Didi could play in each. Obviously, my original Didi would not be capable of the physical work I'd require.''
DIDI IS usually played by a man, the hapless companion of fellow hobo Gogo. Lucky and Pozzo, two other characters, are both usually men as well, but in this production, Lucky will be a woman.
Findlay and scenographer Delores Ringer are re-exploring the 1953 Beckett play, which was first produced at the Theatre de Babylone in Paris. Its first American production came three years later, with E.G. Marshall and the late comic Bert Lahr in the leading roles.
Since it burst upon the scene, "Godot" has confounded critics, who have scrambled to assign meaning to the two parallel acts. In the first, Didi and Gogo mark time while they wait for the unseen Mr. Godot. (The script lists Didi's name as Vladimir and Gogo's as Estragon, but they never call each other by those names.) The pair banter in an abstract, Laurel and Hardy manner, sometimes friendly and sometimes angrily.
THEY ENCOUNTER Pozzo and Lucky: Pozzo, apparent upper-class, holds Lucky by a rope. Lucky speaks only when he takes his hat off, and he sounds like a term paper written at 4 a.m.
After Pozzo and Lucky leave, a boy appears to tell them Godot will not come that day but may tomorrow. The act ends. With a number of variations, the pattern is repeated in the second act.
Some critics have said Godot stands for God, and Didi and Gogo are waiting for redemption. Others have said the barren landscape they live in is a post-apocalyptic view of the universe, where humanity seeks a reason to go on.
"It is the peculiar richness of a play like `Waiting for Godot' that it opens vistas on so many different perspectives,'' wrote Martin Esslin in his book "The Theater of the Absurd.'' "It is open to philosophical, religious and psychological interpretations, yet above all it is a poem on time, evanescence and the mysteriousness of existence, the paradox of change and stability, necessity and absurdity.''
"THE TEXTURE of the dialogue, however rich, would never in itself suffice to give poignancy to the image of two tramps waiting somewhere for something,'' wrote drama scholar Maurice Valency in "The End of the World.''"What gives efficacy to the image is the symbol it embodies, the metaphor. In the symbol is all the power of drama.''
Findlay settled on a biographical interpretation. Born in Ireland in 1903, Beckett emigrated to France, where in the 1930s he worked as James Joyce's secretary. During the war he and his wife fled underground and worked for the French Resistance. Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969; he died in December 1989.
Based on what he and others read about Beckett's relationship with his wife, Findlay chose to cast Didi as a woman.
"It was said that Beckett's conversations with his wife sounded just like the dialogue in the play," Findlay said in a recent interview. "There was an incident where they had to flee Paris, and they were stuck waiting for someone overnight.''
FINDLAY AND Ringer's re-examination of "Godot" extends to the set and costumes. Ringer places the action on a platform littered with scraps of paper. Gogo will be wearing Army surplus clothes, and camouflage netting hangs over the stage.
Casting six Didis instead of one constant character brings even more complications to the play. Didi, who seems to be the smarter of the two tramps, keeps insisting he or she remembers events that transpired in the previous act and, perhaps, before the play began. Gogo, troubled by his boots, won't hear of it most of the time. With six Didis in succession, each change in actresses belies the continuity Didi insists on.
"With the six Didis, it really does become Gogo's play now," Findlay said. "It's inevitable. Didi's the one who keeps wanting to wait, and Gogo is the one who keeps wanting to go. She's the one keeping them there, he's the one who keeps saying `Let's go.'
DURING HIS lifetime, Beckett kept close track of the professional productions of his plays; often his agents would pull or protest a play in production if it strayed from his stage directions. For example, a production of his later play "Endgame" staged at the American Repertory Theater in Boston was protested because it moved the setting from a bunker to a subway.
But since the playwright's death, theater professionals have sought to re-examine Beckett's work, which had a heavy influence on the avant-garde.
"The play has always been seen as being done by four men and a boy," Findlay said. "But it can be done by four women, and I've seen a production where four blacks took the roles. I think in many respects Beckett is like Shakespeare in that what he wrote multiplies the possibilities of interpretation with each reading.''
FINDLAY himself is a product of avant-garde theater, having studied with the Polish experimental director Jerzy Grotowski. He opens each rehearsal with a para-theatrical event: He stands playing his clarinet, and the actors of the piece begin to move, speak, sing, moan or perform. The event goes on for about 15 minutes, and the actors bring it to some resolution. Then, without further discussion, rehearsals start.
"It's a way to get the ensemble feeling together," he said. "Sometimes I give them a title, and sometimes a little form evolves. Sometimes it becomes very farcical, sometimes it becomes very relaxed and quiet. It depends on what's gone on in their lives when they come into it. . . . It's a way of keeping what they bring in out there, so they can focus on the work.''
And thanks to Findlay's production, audiences of "Godot" may turn their focus from the outside desolation and chaos of the land Didi and Gogo inhabit to their friendship.
"In the end, they have each other," Findlay said. "They need each other to survive.''
"Waiting for Godot" plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through next Sunday with a 2:30 p.m. performance Saturday at the Inge Theatre in Murphy Hall. Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office.