Michael Arabian’s stunning revival of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum never wears the play’s international reputation on its sleeve. All involved don’t seem to know or care about the tragicomedy’s stature as 20th century theatrical redefiner or existential statement. They just tell the tale of two little tramps adrift on a road to nowhere, and let the universality emerge as it will. The result? It’s difficult to imagine a funnier or more moving “Godot” anytime, anyplace.
Production’s success might’ve been foreordained with the casting of local legend Alan Mandell (Estragon) and Dublin luminary Barry McGovern (Vladimir), each having spent a lifetime working on – and in Mandell’s case, directly with – the Nobel laureate. Effortlessly filling every pause with thought and every silence with action, they offer a master class in finding the flesh-and-blood reality within deceptively abstract protagonists.
Thesps also deftly incorporate classic comedy’s influence on Beckett, who saw the beloved music hall performers of his youth as perfectly representing mankind locked in an absurd cosmos. It feels completely right, for instance, for Mandell’s Estragon to be channeling Jack Benny in his spavined walk, lightly effeminate gestures and testy demeanor.
At the same time he’s an amusing Lou Costello to McGovern’s Bud Abbott. Vladimir, like Bud, is endlessly seeking clarity in the midst of confusion, his gravelly voice alternately berating and comforting his truculent yet needy pal.
The great comedy teams were always even greater when tangling with character actor antagonists. James Cromwell’s sly, overbearing plutocrat Pozzo adds just the right lift to each of the play’s parallel halves, with resonances of his “L.A. Confidential” genial menace informing the slavemaster’s insidious manipulation of random poor souls.
And it’s a thrill to see another heralded L.A. theater mainstay Hugo Armstrong once and for all nail the famously difficult, logorrheic, unpunctuated monologue of Pozzo’s minion Lucky. Impossibly bent double for what seems like an hour, he rises up ready to demonstrate the power of ideas through verbal music. Gradually he (and we) recognize the futility of things intellectual in this universe of ours, and his haunted visage becomes unforgettable.
Arabian’s pacing of the speech, and of the production as a whole, is near-flawless, and he has been blessed in his production team. Christopher Acebo’s clothes are both specific and timeless in giving new meaning to “baggy pants comics.” Lighting wizard Brian Gale presents vivid animated charcoal variations on sun, moon and sky while remaining true to Beckett’s minimalist instructions.
Special praise is earned by designer John Iacovelli for his boldly artistic choices in creating the necessary sterile promontory. There’s a palpable despair in the rock piles that surround the Taper’s thrust, a strange mixture of majesty and sorrow in that lonely tree. Satellite photos of the earth’s cloud cover seem to have inspired the painting of the circular groundcloth, which seems only sensible since the whole world is being played out on it.