This Yiddish “Godot” is Worth The “Wait”: Samuel Beckett’s Notorious Play Comes Back to New York City

david mandelbaum and eli rosen_photo by dina raketa (2)When it premiered in France in 1953 in its original French text, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot challenged its audience in a big way.   Through the decades of being read and being performed on stage, a great deal has been written about, debated about, and analyzed in regard to the play’s characters, themes and ultimate meaning.  One thing is indisputable: Waiting For Godot defied the traditional structure of live theater.  Most plays at least partially establish the main characters early on, and then proceed to the plot.  In contrast, Beckett’s “tragicomedy in two acts” offers little background about its “dramatis personae upon their introduction.  Some details do come out– ever so slowly– as the play progresses.  That said, the backstories and motivations of of the five figures in Waiting For Godot are just as cryptic as ever when the final curtain falls.  (It’s worth noting that Beckett himself usually declined to, shall we say, “spell things out” for inquiring minds.)  Today, 66 years after Waiting For Godot’s stage premiere, the piece famously described as “a play in which nothing happens” continues to entertain and baffle audiences in equal doses, even in an era when many playwrights, directors, and actors are actively seeking new ways to break the rules in the world of theater every day.  While showing enormous respect to the playwright’s original vision, Waiting For Godot is now being given a new life (and, inevitably, a new wave of debate and discussion) in New York City– and, this version is in Yiddish! Directed by Ronit Muszkatblit and translated into Yiddish by Shane Baker, this incarnation of Waiting For Godot is now playing at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y Theater.

eli rosen and david mandelbaum_photo by dina raketadavid mandelbaum and eli rosen_photo by dina raketa (1)Enigmatic as they are, Waiting For Godot’s two main characters have indeed cemented their status into literary lore, perhaps in part because of their mystery: The tall, lean Vladimir (AKA Didi, played by Eli Rosen) is restless and philosophical.  The shorter, stockier Estragon (AKA Gogo, played by David Mandelbaum) is arthritic, cranky, and seemingly even more defeated by the hardships of life than his friend.   As mentioned before, the audience isn’t told much about the pair’s backstory.  We can immediately guess their approximate age from their straggly grey beards.   Dressed in tattered clothing and dusty bowler hats, we can also decipher that they’ve seen better days. (Didi states,  “Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first. We were respectable in those days. Now it’s too late. They wouldn’t even let us up. “) We learn later on that Didi and Gogo have known each other about 50 years, The pair’s setting is an indeterminate location, although we do know it’s an isolated piece of the country near a tree– a tree which, incidentally, plays an important role.   As the two men tell incomplete stories, make tepid attempt to entertain themselves, and bicker like an old married couple, they wait.  They wait, to state the obvious, for “Godot”. The isolation of the not-so-dynamic duo is occasionally disrupted, most notable by the arrival of  a grandiose and flamboyant–  but mentally unstable– stranger named Pozzo (Gera Sandler), a posturing aristocrat on his way to “the fair”.  In addition to a whip and a flask masquerading as a pair of binoculars, Pozzo travels with his ostensibly wordless and mostly faceless servant Lucky (Richard Saudek), who the sadistic Pozzo keeps in submission via a rope around the neck.  After that encounter between the four men, which gives new meaning to the term “bizarre”,  it’s back to “waiting for Godot”…
david mandelbaum, gera sandler, richard saudek, and eli rosen_photo by dina raketaThe performances in this Waiting for Godot are no less than astonishing.  Eli Rosen is affecting as Vladimir/Didi, the intellectual of the pair.  As the more verbose of the two main characters, Didi has a lot to say, but mostly has only Gogo to say it to– which makes it seem quite appropriate when the actor speaks directly into the audience.  It’s as if he is hoping somebody else is listening.  As the more simplistic Estragon/Gogo, David Mandelbaum delivers an idiosyncratic mix of comedy and pathos. His verbal reactions and one-liners, aided by the oft-explored natural “theatricality” of the Yiddish language,  often received hearty laughs from the audience.  True to Beckett’s original vision, there is indeed a quirky sense of humor in Waiting For Godot— as well as moments of slapstick, which almost seems to descend into madness when Pozzo and Lucky return in Act 2.  As Pozzo, Gera Sandler is magnetic: You can’t “like” his character, but you can’t take your eyes off him.  As Lucky, Richard Saudek has the physical challenges of having to be stooped over with a rope around his neck for almost all of his stage time.  When Saudek-as-Lucky finally gets “unbound” (more mentally than physically), it’s a fascinatingly unsettling, almost surreal moment.  Watching Waiting For Godot, it’s clear that Beckett inserted some keen in-jokes into his own play, such as the line, “This is becoming really insignificant”, or when Didi reacts to Pozzo and Lucky’s theatrics with such quips as “That passed the time!” and “I’ve been better entertained.”– as if reaffirming that the appearance by the sadomasochistic pair are no more than a chaotic distraction for the audience as we all “wait for Godot”…
eli rosen, richard saudek, and gera sandler_photo by dina raketaAs noted before, Godot has been the subject of many, many interpretations trough the years.  But what does become clear is that our two main characters are trapped in a static twilight zone of sorts, where their own take on “reality” (and ours) is challenged  with such phenomena as the changing seasons, that important tree of the setting, a hat, a leg wound, their second encounter with Pozzo and Lucky, and the appearance by a young boy who is presumably a messenger for Godot (charmingly played by Myron Tregubov in a brief but pivotal role).  The play indeed messes with the characters’ and the audience’s very concept of time.  Thanks to this piece’s direction and the skill of the  actors, even those who already know if and when Godot arrives will wait in the same way that Didi and Gogo are waiting.  Sixty-six years later, Samuel Beckett’s most talked-about play reaffirms that most of us,  even in the manic world of 2019, spend a great deal of time waiting– for something.  We may never know if Beckett envisioned that his most talked-about play would be translated into Yiddish in the 2000’s.  But one thing is for sure: The playwright, who was notoriously protective about this renegade piece, would be proud.
richard saudek_photo by dina raketagera sandler_photo by dina raketa (1)Waiting for Godot, in Yiddish with English super-titles, continues through Sunday, January 27th, 2019, at The Theater at the 14th Street Y at 344 East 14th Street at 1st Avenue, New York City.  Tickets are available to purchase by calling 646-395-4310 or by visiting www.newyiddishrep.org. Tickets may also be purchased 30 minutes before showtime. Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.
(Photos by Dina Raketa.)

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