Los Angeles Theater Review: WAITING FOR GODOT (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Harvey Perr on March 23, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Samuel Beckett is a great comic playwright.

You don’t believe me?

Then run, don’t walk, to the Mark Taper Forum and see the blissfully funny and yet profoundly melancholy revival of Waiting For Godot. You will finally see what so many productions fail to get: that Estragon and Vladimir (or Gogo and Didi, as they are more familiarly known) are not abstractions but real human beings. That does not mean they are commonplace. Not at all. They are as commonplace as two merrily arguing drunks in an Irish pub (well, maybe in Ireland, that is commonplace) or as two vaudevillians engaging in the kind of shtick that would make casual observers feel as if some ancient relics had been unearthed in the aftermath of the razing of an old burlesque house. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianNo, they are not what I’d call commonplace.  They are pretty grand; and pretty unique. It is their tragedy that is commonplace, common to all of us. We are born. We die. There are scattered moments of joy along the way. In time, we recognize that there is nothing but bleakness and despair and confusion ahead of us. And, still, we keep moving on. We tell the old jokes. We run to each other for comfort. We are ultimately alone. At best, life is low comedy. Is that, one might ask – and Beckett surely does – all there is? Isn’t it enough? Low comedy and hijinks and the metaphysical sense that, doomed though we may be, there is some sort of salvation in store for us. Is that what keeps us going? Or is it just getting a carrot to eat instead of a turnip? Or getting a pair of shoes that fit? And when the parade of life passes before us, do we embrace it or recoil from it? Or do we recognize the part we take in the parade, and then either embrace or recoil from it?

Waiting For Godot ruminates on all of this, which may– despite the fact that it has caused much head-scratching over the years as to what it all means – explain why it has become and remains a classic. But what often gets bypassed is the reason why so many theater artists are drawn to it: it is, simply put, a fabulous clown show. Get the right clowns and you’re almost there. Get great actors who allow the clown instincts within them to come to the fore and you’re even further along. This is what we have in our midst.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianWatching Alan Mandell  and Barry McGovern making beautiful Beckettian music together is like watching a great violinist and a great pianist playing in rhapsodic communion an exquisitely wrought duet. They play off each other as if Beckett were whispering in their ears, creating a magnet between them that is impossible for either one of them to resist. They are so in synch that a whole human history is created, whether or not it was intentional, and whether or not it was part of the directorial design. In this narrative, Gogo and Didi are two former baggy-pants comedians who probably became lovers and, now, past their prime, cling to each other in the way that old lovers often do, and, in the very next minute, want to run away from each other, as old lovers often do. The text not only supports this approach but is made vivid by it. The actors are so good that one harbors a secret wish they might reverse roles and play them at alternate performances. But, in a way, they have already reversed roles. Usually, Gogo is the clown, Didi the voice of reason; Gogo the heart, Didi the mind; Gogo the sacred fool, Didi the “intellectual.” Here, Gogo is merely the more desperate and needy and decidedly older of the two, while Didi is merely the younger guy with the better memory. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianGogo may be tired of Didi and he may get a bit too irritable with him at times, but he’d be lost without him. Didi takes care of Gogo, more out of love than any sense of superiority. Theirs is a dance of death that the most extraordinary pas de deux could not surpass. Indeed, the way they move should not go unnoticed: Mandell lopes, thrusts, falls, jiggles, a body undecided whether to go backward or forward or unable to make a decision about which way to go, while McGovern moves with a steadiness that almost tells us, in subtle ways, how much of an erotic charge still exists between him and Gogo, and he is always there to capture Gogo should he fall. Mandell, that thin whine giving way to bursts of gorgeous verbal melodiousness, and McGovern, that wry Gaelic confidence giving way to flights of poetry that sound remarkably like natural speech, are, in a word – and I’m still having trouble finding the words to describe the experience – wonderful.

The bits of comic shenanigans and vaudeville routines they share are so deliciously played that it would be so easy to praise them for that alone, but, in the end, because they have created characters we have come to love for their tender humanity even as we acknowledge their desperation, they genuinely move us. The final image breaks your heart. And, our hearts broken, what we leave with, when we leave the theater, is the sense that their ability to laugh together will keep them going on.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianThere is a third performance that registers just as memorably. As Lucky, the slave who must do all the bidding of the tyrannical Pozzo (Pozzo and Lucky represent the life parade which provides Gogo and Didi with some temporary diversion, and us with some view of the world outside the deserted plain that is the home of Beckett’s two tramps), Hugo Armstrong is the production’s major revelation. A mute, woebegone old man, his mind destroyed, his body no longer able to follow its own course, he is finally asked to dance and think. His dance is impossible, his “thoughts” horribly disarranged and deranged. But the aria in which he sputters forth all these fragmented ideas in one long howl of frustration is one of the great moments in the history of the theater – and there are few actors who don’t steal the show with their interpretations – but, of all the Luckys I have encountered, none has encompassed every aspect of the character as brilliantly as Armstrong has. Watch his eyes as he lies there, like a dog, at his master’s feet. Watch the body thrust itself with such abandon that we fully sense the inner ferocity that lies dormant within his compromised being. And, finally, listen to the way he controls his voice as he plays each note, with more clarity of vision than I have ever heard before, of the transcendent score that Beckett has written. Armstrong owns the moment. He deserves the audience’s ovation. Hugo Armstrong is magnificent.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianIf, in terms of acting, this is an almost perfect production, the “almost” is the result of the miscasting of James Cromwell as Pozzo. Sometimes, an actor who is, on the surface, the wrong choice, rises to the occasion by creating such a strong “other” character that he can alter forever the way we have seen the character. Hoping against hope that Cromwell would do just that, he seemed merely tentative, as if he were trying something on that didn’t quite fit, but was working overtime to cut it to size. He has a dazzling moment in which he takes pleasure in performing a speech,  and in grandly taking a prideful stance at its conclusion, waiting for the audience to applaud his efforts. It could have been a triumphant moment, but Cromwell hasn’t yet found the character of Pozzo, so the moment does not come from within him and is, as it stands, just a “moment.” Because the interpretation of Pozzo seems to come from outside the rhythms and tone of the play, there is the nagging suspicion that Michael Arabian’s direction is most successful when the actors are given free rein and less successful when he is trying to impose upon the play some ideas that are his own. If I were more sure of what Pozzo represents to Arabian, it would be easier to discern just what Cromwell was up to. The only clue was that the suit which Christopher Acebo designed for Pozzo was uncomfortably close to the costume John Goodman wore in the recent Broadway revival. A costume is never the character all by itself. It must be worn by someone who would wear nothing else.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianBut, for whatever the reasons, Arabian must be credited with the success of this revival, even if his major contribution was to allow Mandell and McGovern to demonstrate their committed affinity to Beckett. It should be said, however, that I saw McGovern in the Gate Theater production some years ago and, charming as he was in that production, he is so much better this time around, partly because, in Mandell, he seems to have found his most vulnerable partner.

I must say that the opening image – of dark clouds rising above the Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired blue painted sky that John Iacovelli has designed – provided a bit too much of the ominous, which in no way prepared us for the richness of the humor that was the hallmark of the evening. At some point I even said to myself that Mandell and McGovern had somehow managed to bring the sunshine in.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Mark Taper Forum with Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, James Cromwell, and Hugh Armstrong – directed by Michael ArabianAs someone who saw the original London production in 1955 and was forever changed by that happy experience, I can only say that I am glad to have lived long enough to see, as bookends, two of the most glorious productions I could imagine.  This Waiting For Godot is, in every way and despite minor reservations, equally unforgettable. And, because it is has found at its center two very funny fellows who are recognizable as people we know, it may even be better. No warm or fuzzy feelings here: these are just two old codgers doing their best to keep warm as a cold wind leads them towards the inevitable abyss. Sometimes, you find the epic when you are specific about the small things. So I have no doubt Beckett would have approved wholeheartedly. And, as an added bonus, if anyone has never seen the play before, this is a great introduction to it.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Waiting For Godot
Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles)
ends April 22
for tickets, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/


Alice Simpson March 25, 2012 at 9:42 am

Thanks for you excellent review. Having seen numerous productions in New York, I can hardly wait!

Anon April 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm

You’re right about Cromwell. He wasn’t up to the standard of John Goodman in the Broadway production.

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