Theater review: 'Waiting for Godot' at the Mark Taper Forum
"Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s existential classic, is held in such high regard by highbrows that average theatergoers may feel intimidated by the play, as though a pop quiz might be awaiting them after the curtain call.
But don’t let the passion of professorial types deter your visit to the Mark Taper Forum, which has mounted a marvelous revival of the work starring two esteemed Beckett interpreters, Los Angeles’ own Alan Mandell as Estragon and Ireland’s celebrated son Barry McGovern as Vladimir.
Under the incisive direction of Michael Arabian, the play is treated not as a symbolist pageant or a philosophical gag machine but as an encounter with two tattered souls whose plot is the master plot of our lives: filling up the time that has been bafflingly granted to us during our stints on planet Earth.
This isn’t the funniest “Godot” I’ve seen, but it’s definitely the most tenderly affecting. Mandell at 84 is as spry as a man half his age, but his pratfalls are those of someone with too much experience to pretend that bruises don’t hurt and beatings are a laugh riot. His comedy echoes down a corridor of years. McGovern, whose musical Irish voice could soothe the rankled hearts of terrorists, has the stern straight-man shtick down pat, but his eyes glisten with empathy even as Vladimir’s patience frays.
It’s clear why these two tramps have been bumming around together for the last 50 years, swapping their decrepit food stores and rehashing old stories: They’re all each other has, and they care deeply about each other, tediously exasperating as the company can be as they wait for their chronic no-show, the august Mr. Godot, who will surely redeem their suffering the moment he stops postponing their long-standing appointment.
James Cromwell is a skinnier but no less blustering than usual Pozzo, the tyrannical aristocrat, who barges onto the scene with Lucky (Hugo Armstrong), his worn-out slave roped at the neck and saddled with baggage. The cruelty of this relationship shocks Didi and Gogo (as Vladimir and Estragon affectionately call each other), but they’re too frightened and hungry to do anything about it. And in any event, this raucous encounter helps them pass the time — so what if, as Gogo ruefully notes, it would have passed anyway.
On a circular set by John Iacovelli bordered by rocks and landmarked by a woebegone tree, the characters occupy a purely theatrical space that is at once dreamlike and concretely real. Beckett cautioned against overly aestheticizing the design, not wanting “Godot” to come off as painted allegory. In a letter to the art historian Georges Duthuit, the playwright explained that he was seeking a “sordidly abstract” form of nature, “a place of suffering, sweaty and fishy, where sometimes a turnip grows, or a ditch opens up.” Arabian’s staging fulfills this mission, becoming picturesque only at the end of each of the two acts, when a boy messenger (LJ Benet) conveys Godot’s regrets, and by that point the audience can use a bit of moonlit lyricism.
Beckett was quick to dismiss the high-minded prattle that surrounded the interpretation of the play that established his reputation in the mid-1950s. (He was more concerned that Gogo’s pants fall down as stipulated in Act 2.) And indeed the slapstick buffoonery is designed to undermine any intellectual pretensions that might be provoked by the play’s indelible image of the human predicament.
But there’s no getting around the profound themes — religious, philosophical, psychological — that give this buoyant work its weight. The banter between Didi and Gogo takes up the biggest questions even as it sends up ultimate answers. Graduate students enjoy deriving intellectual constructs from the play (the absurdist worldview to a 25-year-old is chic and unreal), but anyone who has reached middle age can’t help relating to the play as a naturalistic document of our inexplicable plight.
What makes this production so appealing is the way it balances the light and dark, the savagery and sympathy. Mandell brings a childlike wonder to his role. The universe may be an unverifiable place in which all experience is written on the wind, but Estragon hasn’t completely succumbed to despair. His curiosity is still only a whistle away. True, his feet are in agony from cursedly ill-fitting boots, but just take note of the delight that’s provoked by a measly carrot, cherished by Mandell as though it were the world’s most expensive cigar.
McGovern’s performance readily captures the tone of Beckett’s humor, which is more compassionate than is sometimes recalled. True, the ironies are crushing, but the joke is more often on our situation than ourselves. And that understanding informs McGovern’s Didi as he puts his coat over a slumbering Gogo or grabs his arm in a rush of brotherly concern. There’s poignancy to the way he handles even such clownish tasks as juggling hats.
Not all elements of the production are perfectly coordinated. The rhythms of the second act are choppier. When Pozzo and Lucky return — Pozzo having gone blind and Lucky even more depleted than before — the staging devolves into a muddle of bodies. And some of the more grandiose lines near the end (“The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener.”) come delivered in italics.
But this is an extraordinary opportunity to see a modern masterpiece in the hands of two experts and a highly resourceful supporting cast able to uncover fresh humanity in familiar roles. Kudos to Armstrong for making Lucky’s nonsensical tirade (“...divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions...”) heartbreakingly amusing and to Cromwell for registering misgivings in Pozzo’s whirlwind pomposity.
Any chance the Taper could produce more revivals of this caliber? Beckett is no doubt right about the confounding ache of existence, but this “Waiting for Godot” provides theatrical hope.
-- Charles McNulty
'Waiting for Godot,’ Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 22. $20 to $65.(213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Godot Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Photos: Upper: Alan Mandell, left, and Barry McGovern. Lower: Hugo Armstrong, left, and James Cromwell. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times