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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Close your eyes for a second and think of Waiting for Godot . . . Even if you've never seen the play, I'll bet some of the same images come to mind: maybe it's the lone tree, or two vagabonds in bowler hats, or maybe Gogo's ill fitting boots. Right?

That's the blessing, and the curse, of a classic like Godot. It drags along with it the historical baggage of expectation.

Director Michael Arabian's revival of Waiting for Godot at the Taper embraces expectation like an old friend. It's all there: the tree, the bowler hat, the boots. When actors Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern scamper onstage as Didi and Gogo, you can almost feel the history entering with them -- which isn't surprising given their own back-stories.

Mr. Mandell was directed by Samuel Beckett, himself, in productions of Godot and Endgame and was a founder of the famed San Quentin Drama Workshop. Mr. McGovern will mark his 400th performance of Godot during the Taper run. These are two actors at home in the world of Beckett and it's beautiful to watch.

Mandell, at 84, brings to Gogo a powerful frailty. His continual gesture is a world-weary shrug that embodies a life of struggle. McGovern's Didi is tender and protective. When the two begin to bicker and complain like an old married couple you feel the burden and comfort of familiarity.

Ultimately, though, there's something a bit too familiar, too comfortable about director Arabian's production. The challenge with a classic like Godot is the quintessential conundrum of the theater: how do you make the familiar, the known, come to life as if for the first time?

What's missing from this Godot is urgency.

Okay, I know it sounds strange to ask for urgency in a play that's about ‘waiting' but stick with me.

There is to Beckett's language, to his world, a violence, an immediacy. You should sense it in the horror when Gogo wakes up from a dream. As he begins to share it, Didi commands "DON'T TELL ME!" You should feel it when Pozzo orders his slave Lucky, "Up pig!" You should hear it in the crack of Pozzo's whip.

It's telling that in this production Pozzo's whip is more of a fashion accessory than an implement of torture. These moments of danger, that should shock us into the play, are only hinted at: we hear them but we don't feel them.

Without this darkness, this violence, Beckett's poetic moments don't have as much to push against. You find yourself giving a familiar nod to moments that should be devastating.

The startling exception, that goes a long way towards proving the rule, is Hugo Armstrong's performance of Lucky's inscrutable ‘thinking.' On the page, Lucky's only speech is a seeming jumble but Mr. Armstrong brings a pathos and urgency to Beckett's words. It's so shocking the audience can't help but applaud.

Don't get me wrong, this is a wonderful production of Waiting for Godot but it's most poignant moments feel just out of reach.

Waiting for Godot plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through April 22.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2:30 with intermission.


Hugo Armstrong (Alan Mandell in background) in Waiting for Godot. Photo by Craig Schwartz

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