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Arts and Entertainment

At the Taper, Still 'Waiting for Godot' After All These Years

None of these men is Godot (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
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Anyone plugging through life with the expectation that some well-deserved catharsis or epiphany--or even just a bit of clarity about what it all means--will be heading their way is bound to end up waiting a long, long time.

Pretty bleak, huh? But if you can see how this pathetic little human condition of ours is also pretty funny (at least while you watch it happening to someone else), then Samuel Beckett's mid-century modernist classic play "Waiting for Godot," now getting a richly satisfying production at the Mark Taper Forum, should be right up your alley.

High-profile stagings of "Godot" often dangle marquee names to lure in audiences. New York theaters, for example, have generated excitement for the play by casting Robin Williams, Steve Martin, John Goodman, Bill Irwin, John Turturro, Tony Shalhoub, Nathan Lane and other above-the-title types, with mixed results. So perhaps it's only in LA where we would find a company delivering this kind of substantial "Godot" for the ages, starring a pair of veteran Beckett careerists, performing together for the first time.

Both Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern separately worked and consulted with the playwright himself back in the day, and between them they have presented "Godot" who-knows-how-many times. Californian Mandell, now 84, introduced the play to an audience at San Quentin Prison in a legendary 1957 production and has subsequently toured Beckett's works throughout the U.S. and Europe. Formerly a leading member of Ireland's Abbey Theatre Company, McGovern established an international reputation as one of the world's foremost Beckett interpreters, both as an actor and a theatrical adaptor of the Nobel Prize winner's novels.

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"Godot"'s protagonists Vladimir (McGovern) and Estragon (Mandell), or Didi and Gogo as they call each other, are a couple of beaten-down tramps in bowler hats (think: Laurel and Hardy) who meet up at a barren spot in the middle of nowhere to keep an appointment with one Mr. Godot in anticipation of some unspecified relief. But Godot himself never seems to show up (although once, surprisingly, in the very first moments of Michael Arabian's production a mysterious male figure briefly appears silhouetted through the backdrop without explanation).

Alternating between hope and despair, the two friends entertainingly clown around and try to make sense of their predicament to pass the time. These antic musings are interrupted first by the arrival of vaguely sinister partrician Pozzo (James Cromwell, recently of "The Artist") and his abused slave Lucky (Hugo Armstrong) and then, toward nightfall, late in the first act, by a boy (L.J. Benet) who delivers the message from Godot that he will not be coming today, but certainly tomorrow. This sequence of events then repeats itself in Act Two--with a few significant variations.

Accounts of the action and symbolism of "Waiting for Godot" typically rely on the word "existential" to describe Didi and Gogo's shared predicament. But perhaps the best summary of this play's aesthetic appeal was provided by Beckett himself, in a line from his other major dramatic work "Endgame," when one character suggests, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness....It's the most comical thing in the world." All four of the major characters in "Godot" are inescapably unhappy. But certainly, with this most distinguished cast, the audience's sympathetic laughter almost never stops.

"Waiting for Godot" plays every evening except Tuesdays through April 22, with Saturday and Sunday matinees. Tickets start at $20. Half-price tickets for some performances available on Goldstar.

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