by Hugh Hunter

“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett is the poster child for “Theater of the Absurd.” The show now running at Quintessence Theatre Group is as engaging a production of the absurdist classic as you will ever see.

Two baggy pants vagabonds, Estragon (Frank X) and Vladimir (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.), take center stage. They are waiting for Godot to arrive. But who is Godot, and what do they want from him? Salvation? The truth? Vladimir and Estragon never say.

Ken Marini (co-founder of People’s Light) directs a show that brings out the cranky camaraderie of a Vladimir/Estragon relationship that borders on affection. This pair also inspires affection in you. Hobbs and Frank X (both award-winning actors) had the audience laughing all night with physical improvisation in the spirit of burlesque humor.

Pozzo (Gregory Isaac) and Lucky (J. Hernandez), appearing late in both acts, are picturesque in a different way. They have a comical and grotesque master/slave relationship. By contrast, this pair is not waiting. But as Pozzo and Lucky come and go, you have the same kinds of questions. What are they seeking? Where do they ultimately want to go, and what do they expect to find?

These two pairs elliptically sum up human relationships: love and bestiality. And yet, they share the identical fate of being trapped in repetitive meaninglessness. Both acts end with the arrival of Boy (Lyam David-Kilker), a perky, upbeat child who tells Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not arrive.

Quintessence sets are usually unremarkable but not so here. The design of James F. Pyne Jr. evokes desolation. A scraggly, leafless tree takes a prominent place on one side. A powdery chocolate brown dirt floor and a dark background curtain of lifeless tree trunks complete the vision of a forlorn human plight.

Existentialism explores how the individual can find value in a seemingly cold and indifferent universe. Beckett and other writers in the absurdist mode carry this argument to its logical conclusion: If the universe is cold and meaningless, there can be no authentic meaning in the individual life.

“Waiting for Godot” is the best known and perhaps most successful of dramas in the absurdist vein. In its circular structure, it achieves a marriage of form and idea. And Beckett not only takes a bleak view of man’s fate. He goes out of his way to make you feel the oppressive world of his characters.

Does anyone “enjoy” watching “Godot?” For sure, the Quintessence show is visually unforgettable, and the actors are a tour de force in their feeling for the burlesque. But there was an edge in the audience laughter, as though they also sought escape from this despairing world. Here is the nub: to make “Godot” even watchable, a production must create arresting values which, ideologically, the play argues do not exist.

Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Waiting for Godot” will run through Feb 18. Ticket information at 215-987-4450.

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