The best summary of Waiting for Godot may be Act II’s first stage direction: ”
Next day. Same time. Same place.” Samuel Beckett intended that “same place” to be a country road, but in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s boisterous new production, the locale has been radically shifted to a rooftop above a flooded landscape, a slope of shingles replacing the script’s mound, three feet of water covering the rest of the set. Vladimir and Estragon find themselves in a kind of post-Katrina New Orleans, enduring their existential comedy half on top of their isolated building, half in the water that surrounds it. Call this Wading for Godot.
Director Christopher McElroen and designer Troy Hourie’s production is not for purists. Or for Beckett himself, who was famously resistant to reconceptions of his plays. Their loss. While not perfect, CTH’s literally splashy production—Pozzo arrives in an inflatable dinghy pulled by Lucky—demonstrates how misplaced such dramaturgical rigidity can be. McElroen exploits Godot‘s inherent flexibility, the room the script allows for reimagining and rehearing; it’s an underused, often resisted aspect of the play’s genius. McElroen may go too far, though, with his Katrina references (scrawling “GODOT!” as a rescue cry on the rooftop, for example). The flood imagery is evocative and fun, but tying the play too tightly to one historical event diminishes some of its necessary opaqueness.
The Classical Theatre of Harlem can be counted on for strong acting, and Godot is no exception. J. Kyle Manzay makes a sweetish Gogo; Chris McKinney plays Pozzo with a vigorous frustration (though he could ratchet up his menace). Billy Eugene Jones is an affecting Lucky, almost always chest-deep in water. But this Godot belongs to Wendell Pierce’s Didi. A bearish clown one moment, a lost soul with hangdog eyes the next, Pierce—through this comic, moving portrayal—shows just how humane the theater of the absurd can actually be.