"Waiting for Godot" remains a pillar of the non-naturalistic theater. In many ways it's theater stripped down to its essentials.
Two tramps sit by a road: Their dramatic action is to wait. And wait. For Godot.
So those who would try to deconstruct or reconstitute the Samuel Beckett play must work carefully: It's difficult to experiment on what's essentially an experimental play. If you add too much, Beckett can get buried.
And in many places Beckett does get buried in Robert Findlay's new production, running through Sunday at the Inge Theatre at Kansas University. For all its grand physicality and innovation, the production loses track of the play.
FINDLAY'S core idea to cast one of the tramps as a woman works quite well. Originally, both tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, were played by men.
But here Findlay chooses to cast Vladimir, the tramp with the better memory and more pretentious speeches, as a woman. Early on, you get the feeling that Didi and Gogo, as Vladimir and Estragon call each other, are wife and husband. It's an untraditional approach, but it forces the audience to look again at the script and find new subtleties.
In the script, the tramps pass the time by arguing about a lot of things, including what happened yesterday and whether to hang themselves.
They're interrupted by Pozzo, a noble, sadistic landowner, and Lucky, his servant. Lucky, usually played by a completely passive, robotic man, here is played by a struggling woman dressed as a bride.
At the end of the first act, a boy comes and tells Didi and Gogo that Mr. Godot won't be coming that day, but would the next. The action, with variations in the dialogue and the set, is basically repeated in the second act.
IN THE Inge production, six women play Didi. This device, at least in theory, heightens the idea of inconsistency that pervades the script. The characters lose track of time and have only hints of memory, except for Didi. But it also takes away the chance for one actress to give a sustained, contained performance opposite the single Gogo.
The actors speak many of their lines to the audience. The motif grows more and more coy as the evening wears on, and it's pointless. Didi and Gogo are supposed to be isolated and alone; if they had an audience, why are they so desperate for things to do while they wait?
Delores Ringer's set is spare and functional and some of the cast's efforts do pay off. Abramson is intermittently affecting as the hapless Gogo, and his physical skills are exemplary. Tall, blond Bjorn Skaptason, using a fine voice and a controlled presence, plays Pozzo as if he were a refugee from the film "Metropolitan."
JENNIFER L.B. Johnson transforms Lucky from a robot to a struggling slave; her rendition of the character's first-act speech, usually read in a monotone, gives new depth to Beckett's lines. And all six Didis show a gift for the physical demands of the script; Jiffy Iuen, who plays Didi at the beginning of Act II, is a standout.
But all these young actors are allowed to smile and laugh when it would make sense to cry, or to leap and mug when a well-timed quip would do.
The production isn't rabidly anti-Beckett, but it would be a lot more fun to deconstruct a naturalistic play using these techniques. "Godot" is too fine a play with too great an emotional impact to dilute.
"Waiting for Godot" plays at 8 p.m. tonight through Sunday with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Saturday at the Inge Theatre in Murphy Hall.
Richard LeComte J-W Arts Editor