Peter Alfano and Tristan Odenkirk in Waiting for Godot

The plot for Waiting for Godot, currently running at Moline’s Black Box Theatre, is rather simple: Two men wait near a tree for the infamous Godot. It’s unclear how many days they’ve already been waiting, or how much longer the wait will take. How the men pass time makes up the meat of this story, and Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic ultimately grapples with the age-old question: What does it all mean? Under the skillful direction of Reader employee Mike Schulz, this production gives you the opportunity to decide for yourself.

We first meet Peter Alfano’s Estragon as he fiddles with his boots, waiting for his friend Vladimir (Tristan Odenkirk) to join him. After Vladimir arrives, more waiting ensues. These two actors are fabulously matched, performing as two sides of the same coin. Odenkirk’s childlike hopefulness and eager attitude are counterpointed with Alfano’s serious, solemn demeanor.

Estragon’s bleary outlook may seem a bit off-putting at first, as we attempt to discern which of the pair is the wise one and who is calling the shots. Certainly, Estragon seems more likely to give up and definitely needs coaxing from Vladimir to remember much of anything, or even to have a bit of fun. Yet one can’t help but consider that perhaps Estragon’s unwillingness to believe, coupled with his strong want of a nap, is the more practical solution, after all. For me, particularly in these pandemic times, Estragon is incredibly relatable.

Brandon Smith and Jarod Kovach in Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot is a curious (or brilliant) theatrical choice in the time of COVID-19. And Schulz’s staging simultaneously pokes fun at the current restrictions while following them all at the same time, because one can never get too far away from a global pandemic, even while engaging in prolonged waiting by a barren tree in the middle of nowhere. Rarely, if ever, do the play's characters come within six feet of one another. Given the stark set design of the aforementioned sad-looking tree (the scenic design is jestingly credited to August’s derecho windstorm), there’s plenty of room to navigate. The long-distance hugs, especially, are at once laughable and heartbreaking, much like the play's overall plot.

Admittedly, the reflective glare on the face shields the actors wear from Samantha Flipp’s simple lighting design, especially when the actors sat on the ground, was distracting at first. Yet as you become more engrossed – waiting, and wondering, whether anything is actually going to happen in the play – the symbolic shields serve as another subtle yet relevant reminder that the absurdity inside the theatre echoes the absurdity outside.

It’s fascinating how Beckett’s script is unafraid of humor while highlighting horrors, and that becomes even more poignant in this production. Just when you become comfortable with the stagnancy and the relationship shared by Vladimir and Estragon, others appear. As a unit, Odenkirk and Alfano are brilliant to watch, and it seems nearly unfair when they are joined by others who don’t spark joy in the same way. But Brandon Smith’s version of the character Pozzo is unbelievably grating with his unsettling volume combined with the terrible things that spill from his lips with a smile. The good news is that I’m fairly confident that Beckett intends for Pozzo to be a horrible reminder of reality, in which case Smith’s portrayal can be considered a rousing success.

The poor recipient of Pozzo's mistreatment is Jarod Kovach’s Lucky, a human packhorse, who follows Pozzo’s every command. While Kovach is unassuming, spending the bulk of his time on stage lying on the ground surrounded by Pozzo’s belongings, he gets a chance to shine with his humble hand jive, and again when he busts out a lengthy and primarily nonsensical monologue.

Tristan Odenkirk and Peter Alfano in Waiting for Godot

Another way in which Lucky stands out is in his blue shirt, which is among the only real items of color for much of the show. Everyone else sports gloomy neutrals in their oversize costumes. Have they all lost weight from eating only a random smattering of vegetables, or were these the only clothes they could find? (Add that to the confounding list of unanswered questions.) Then, just when you reach the highpoint of frustration in waiting, that’s when a boy arrives, and Josef Bodenbender delivers a beacon of hope, bringing a clear message from Godot: Keep waiting.

Blessedly, the audience gets a chance to breathe and relax during intermission – just in time to do it all again. The second act is different, yet ever the same. There’s familiarity in the stagnancy at this point, much like the world around us, making the second act a more comfortable place to be. Yet a tiny piece of your heart hopes that today is the day Godot finally arrives.

Schulz’s beautifully frustrating production will leave you with more questions than answers. If you were hoping to use this experience to finally answer the question “How do you pronounce Godot?”, you will be disappointed, as the cast amusingly switches pronunciations halfway through. There are no answers here. Whether you decide to join the likable Odenkirk in finding joy in little things or align more with Alfano as a perpetual grumpus, this well-executed production gives you the chance to grapple with whatever challenges you’re currently facing.

 

Waiting for Godot runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline IL) through October 31, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 or visiting TheBlackBoxTheatre.com.

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