For conventional theater folk, the Theater of the Absurd is a warning label; intellect over entertainment threatens to thwart an evening of escapism. Even if certain scripts stroll reasonably close to the doors of convention—Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And Ionesco’s, Rhinoceros—come to mind, the average escapist will fear being confronted with meanings that seem uncomfortably out of reach.

The granddaddy of absurdist plays, Samuel Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot, is well known enough to avoid intimidation. Even with its message of existential futility, Godot has enough vaudevillian charm to tickle the pleasure parts of the brain. Even when things seem hopeless.

In Beckett’s world, hopelessness is its own reward.   

Viola: This is hopeless. (beat) Lolo, I can’t do this anymore. (beat) I said I won’t do this anymore.
Eloise: I continue.

This is standard Beckett. So is this: “…you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” But one of these is not the words of Beckett but of Ed Proudfoot. The first quote is actually not from anything Beckett wrote but from a new script based on Beckett.

​The name of the play is Chewing on Beckett and the author, Ed Proudfoot, wrote it as a response to the rule that no woman may perform in Beckett’s most famous piece, Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett, Irish-born playwright who defined the Theater of the Absurd in the 20th century, held strict rules regarding the staging of his plays, right down to gestures, pauses and even casting.

​His most studied and staged work, Godot, famous as the two-act play in which “nothing happens – twice,” concerns the real-time lives of two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for the title character who (spoiler alert) never arrives. In the first act, they do encounter two passersby, Lucky and Pozzo (slave and master, respectively), and a boy who announces that Godot will not be arriving that day but surely tomorrow. The pair also consider suicide, and it should be noted that the ending of one’s own life, for these two, is more a solution to boredom than an act of desperation.

The second act does not bring Godot but the return of Lucky and Pozzo, although the roles of slave and master now seem confused. The boy returns, too, and Vladimir begins to see how the promise of change is just part of the pattern of despair; surely tomorrow will be different—a pattern we must repeat daily. The vagabonds consider the ultimate question yet again then decide to leave. But the lights fade with nothing changing and Vladimir and Estragon not moving. The play has well-earned its fame. One could sum up its theme as hope and the hopelessness of hope.

​In Ed Proudfoot’s, Chewing on Beckett, currently in its world premiere at Artemesia Theatre in Chicago, we meet Viola and Eloise, female counterparts to Beckett’s vagabonds. Their world is dystopian and the pair enter the stage (bare but for a picnic table) ready for something to happen. Indeed, Viola’s first line is, “Something has to change.” Viola, played with intellectual urgency by Artemesia’s founder and artistic director, Julie Proudfoot, is the more lucid of the two, as she tries to motivate her former teacher, Eloise, to remember their lives pre-apocalypse. Apparently, Eloise was once quite the lecturer, though the present-day Eloise seems quite confused most of the time and perhaps mad. Eloise’s words are at once random and impossible to follow then suddenly lucid as her mind has momentary shifts back to its former cerebral sharpness; Diane Dorsey’s Eloise bounces brilliantly between sense and nonsense as if it all makes sense to her. And it does.

What brought them to this state? I’m not sure, exactly—except that Beckett’s curse against any woman ever performing the all-male roles in Waiting for Godot plays some part in this. You see, Eloise once taught Beckett and Viola was her student but now Viola seems to be the one taking care of the rather frail, lost and confused Eloise.

​There are layers to peel away, both metaphorically and literally (Eloise wears multiple jumpsuits). Eloise must constantly hear reminders from Viola pertaining to Eloise’s lost book. It turns out that the book was only lost in the layers of Eloise’s clothing. Once they locate the book, they hope to take control of their situation. As in Godot, Eloise and Viola get visited by strangers. A mother and daughter, Paola (played with brilliant comic timing by Molly Lyons) and Becky, happen upon Eloise and Viola, further complicating their lives.

What this amounts to is a delightfully dense narrative with an intellectual punch. Goodman’s Steve Scott has expertly and tightly directed a theatrical treat for the intellect. Artemesia’s love affair with Beckett is a bittersweet one; they embrace his genius even while rejecting his sexism. It’s not for everyone but you know who you are.

Artemesia Theatre’s Chewing on Beckett runs through June 12, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30; Sunday at 6:00 and Saturdays at 2:00; at the Frontier Theatre at 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago. Artemesia box office: (312) 725-3780.

Left to Right: Millie Hurley as Old Woman, Julie Proudfoot, as Viola,  Diane Dorsey as Eloise, Patty Malaney as Becky and Molly Lyons as Paola in Artemisia Theatre's Chewing on Beckett at Frontier Theatre through June 12 (photo courtesy of Artemesia Theatre).

Artemisia Theatre Taking a Chomp Out of the Absurd in Chewing on Beckett