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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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Laughs, then bleak confusion in American Players Theatre's Waiting for Godot
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Ridge (left) and DeVita bring to mind great comedy duos of the past.
Ridge (left) and DeVita bring to mind great comedy duos of the past.
Credit:Zane Williams

If you're wary of taking in Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting for Godot, for fear that it's too cerebral, or that you won't catch all the Biblical references, or grasp the existential philosophy, don't be. The American Players Theatre production, which opened Friday in the intimate, indoor Touchstone Theatre, is an accessible slapstick romp with uniformly top-notch performances by the small cast.

On a bleak country road two long-time friends, Vladimir (James Ridge) and Estragon (James DeVita), wait for the arrival of an acquaintance, Godot. They are uncertain what their business with him is and can't even be sure what he looks like, or if they are indeed waiting in the right place. They fritter away the time, worrying about their tedious wait and even contemplating hanging themselves from the lone tall tree. The tedium is interrupted when Pozzo (Brian Mani) and his slave Lucky (John Pribyl) arrive. At the end of the first act a young boy (Marco Lama) announces that Godot will come tomorrow instead. Act two brings more of the same, but our duo has gotten more agitated and confused.

As Vladimir and Estragon, Ridge and DeVita bring to mind great comedy duos of the past. Their familiarity and easy chemistry lead to some hilarious physical comedy that would make any old vaudevillian proud, but they also share moments of real tenderness and concern. Even their nicknames, Didi and Gogo, are endearing.

At times Ridge resembles Stan Laurel as he nervously works the brim of his bowler, frequently taking it off to peer into it. His long face is punctuated with wide saucer eyes when he's alarmed. Ridge's is the quieter role -- Vladimir seems to be in better mental shape than Estragon. Acting as a sort of caregiver for his agitated friend, Didi sings a lullaby to Gogo, shares root vegetables with him and assists him with footwear and hats. It's Vladimir who desperately wants to been seen, to be known.

DeVita is a manic powerhouse, conjuring the nave, childlike impulsiveness and inflections of Lou Costello. He scuttles across the stage with a slight hitch in his step or plops himself on the ground with his head bowed and feet flexed, like an unruly schoolboy awaiting punishment. DeVita literally leans on Ridge, coiling around him. The two share a scene involving a boot that had audience members roaring with laughter (some hoisted themselves up in their seats to get a better view of the silliness). I marveled at DeVita's quicksilver timing, exuberance and deft physicality. He conveys Estragon's impatience and frustration with whiny outbursts, then slumps into defeated weariness. His Estragon is a savant. Just when you think he's totally addled, he makes perfect sense or casts a knowing glance harkening back to some former self.

As Pozzo, Brian Mani is clad in a cacophony of plaid. He's fascinating. He blusters on with a pompous demeanor, somehow losing all of his personal possessions while being outrageously cruel to Lucky, whom he jerks around on a long rope. Pribyl as Lucky is at first slack-jawed, with the pink-rimmed eyes and white hair of a nervous albino rabbit. Initially silent and burdened with Pozzo's heavy baggage, he is commanded to dance (and what an oddly lugubrious dance it is) and then think, letting loose in a diatribe that has the entire cast going berserk around him.

Nathan Stuber's stark gray vista, enhanced by Noele Stollmack's lighting, is powerful. Holly Payne has assembled the perfect floppy, flapping rag-tag costumes for Vladimir and Estragon, and Pozzo's plaid ensemble perfectly sets him apart.

I can imagine what fun rehearsals must have been, because there is a true joy and camaraderie between the cast. Albers brings out the best in his actors, even young Lama as the boy. I'll admit that I started to feel a bit overwhelmed in the second act when the slapstick fun wears off. The bleakness sets in, and the flood of language feels stifling. But that doesn't diminish my appreciation.

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