Arabian, Mandell and Armstrong Wait for Godot

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Michael Arabian, Alan Mandell and Hugo Armstrong

At first sight, Waiting for Godot looks simple. It’s the story of two men, Vladimir and Estragon, on a country road by a small tree, waiting for a man.  They don’t know for certain if he will come.  They don’t even know what he looks like, or what he does.  They know they will wait for him to arrive.  But in fact Godot is one of the most challenging classics of the 20th century.  It tackles themes of memory, existence, friendship, and asks, what exactly are we waiting for?

Premiering in France in 1953, Godot (pronounced GOD-oh) bent and twisted the rules of drama and provided more questions than answers.  Los Angeles theatergoers will again be able to ask those questions along with Vladimir and Estragon, as Samuel Beckett’s most famous play arrives at the Mark Taper Forum tonight.  The production stars Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern as Estragon and Vladimir, with Academy Award nominee James Cromwell as the cruel Pozzo, Hugo Armstrong as the unlucky Lucky and LJ Benet as the Boy, directed by Michael Arabian.

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in "Waiting for Godot"

A bare stage is made to look like a beaten dirt road, with a single tree, a rock to sit on, and a projection of the horizon. Other than that, it’s all about the sharpest tools a playwright can have — actors delivering amazing text.

Although Beckett was born and raised in Ireland, he lived most of his adult life in France.  An early disciple of James Joyce, he first began as a novelist.  Realizing he would never be able to eclipse his mentor, Beckett turned to writing plays.  Godot was the first to be produced, and it was written in French (Beckett would often write in French and do his own English translations).  He continued to push the rules of drama, stripping his work to, well, almost nothing at times.

Over a dinner break, just before previews begin, two of the actors, Mandell and Armstrong, along with director Arabian, sit down to discuss their experiences as they explore the complex themes in this funny and heartbreaking play.

Stand Up Until I Embrace You

Alan Mandell as Nagg in the 1991 San Quentin Drama Workshop's production of "Endgame"

Of the three, Mandell (Estragon) has the longest association with the play and with Beckett himself.  He toured Europe in productions of Godot and Endgame, directed by Beckett, continuing to work with him for several decades.  A fixture on both Los Angeles and New York stages, Mandell has been seen here in many plays — among them, The Cherry Orchard at the Taper, Twelve Angry Men, Trying and No Man’s Land, winning Ovation Awards for the latter two. At 84 years old, he’s still sharp, with piercing blue eyes, a cunning sense of humor, and a voice of a master actor.

His first encounter with Godot might not be what you would expect from this Beckett scholar.  “I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about,” he recalls. This was in 1957.  Mandell was working at the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop as general manager, actor, and director. “Whatever title you named, that’s the title I was,” he says slyly.  Herb Blau, who was a producing artistic director with Jules Irving, sent a package home from Europe.

Mandell opened it up and inside along with the play was a note, saying, “”¦. this is a play we’re going to do, this is really special.”Â  Mandell and the secretary of the company began to read it.  “I laughed a little.  She laughed a little.  We kept reading.”Â  He shrugs as he tells the story.  “It made no sense to me, reading it.”Â  At the time, he decided it would be best to wait for Blau to return.  Unlike Godot, Blau showed up. The company did a reading of the play.  “As it began to happen, it suddenly began to get more and more exciting, revealed.”

Alan Mandell and Hugo Armstrong

Hugo Armstrong (Lucky) is a familiar face in the Los Angeles theater scene, having appeared in plays at the Geffen Playhouse and Sacred Fools.  He received an Ovation Award and an LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Land of the Tigers with Burglars of Hamm.  With his bald head, thick bead, and great height, he cuts an imposing figure.  But his easy smile dispels that quickly.  He chuckles when he thinks about his first time with Waiting for Godot.  It was in high school.  It was not an experience he treasured.  “Having to read it in high school was like making a prisoner read about prison while he was in prison.”

While perhaps not the best of experiences, Armstrong did recognize something in the play that was different.  The turning point came years later, when he had an opportunity to see the play.  “Barry (McGovern) was actually in the show.”Â  And while not initially interested, Armstrong was glad he went.  “I thought it was amazing.  Seeing people really do it.”Â  He quickly fell for the theatrical poetry of the script.

Michael Arabian returns to the Taper, having directed Albee’s The Sandbox, Pinter’s A Slight Ache, and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape there in the 50/60 Vision festival in 1990.  This is his first time taking on Godot.  His first contact with the play came in the form of a production he saw while he was in college.  After a diet of mostly musicals and Shakespeare, for Arabian, what he saw was a revelation. How the play combined the visual with the text showed him another way to do theater.  “That the visual aspect of it was a major part of the storytelling.  That was very exciting to me.”Â  And the writing?  “That there was still all the aspect of the human condition being revealed through this unique poetic level of writing was startling.”

So There You Are Again

Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell

For decades, Mandell played Lucky, Pozzo’s slave, in some of the play’s most famous productions, including two for San Quentin prisoners.  Now, he has finally been promoted to the role of Estragon.  But even for this experienced actor, it has proven to be quite a challenge.  He shakes his head, “It’s the repetition.  It’s just maddening.  Because of that, you need an enormous amount of time in rehearsal, just to keep going over and over.”Â  The language of the play is circular, and the main characters often find themselves right where they started.  Mandell, thinking about the work he will do later, puts his head in his hands.  “I keep working on it, I can’t think of anything else.  These lines.”

Armstrong agrees.  “It’s almost like you travel all the way around the entire earth to stand in exactly the same spot you stood in originally.  And you’re looking at the same thing, but you have a totally new understanding of it.”

He recalls a time when he found himself playing out Godot in real life.  While he was having the oil in his car changed, he sat, waiting.  He wasn’t watching the TV or reading the magazines.  And another man was waiting.  “We just happened to sorta glance at each other.  And almost simultaneously”¦”Â  They both shrug together, unprompted.  “And that’s it.  That’s two human beings.”

Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell

Arabian picks up this thread, and talks about what he focused on while directing –  “revealing human condition through real character and behavior.”Â  He wanted to understand the fears, and the goals of the characters, and understand how they cope with being where they are.  But this isn’t a gloomy play — far from it, Arabian assures.  “All these major themes the play is exploring and revealing, it’s done through a tremendous amount of humor.”Â  There’s a streak of vaudeville in the play that he says the actors have fun doing.

When asked about Beckett’s work being Irish, Mandell simply responds, “Yes.”Â  Following a perfectly timed pause, he leans forward, “You’re supposed to say, expand.”Â  And there’s laughter around the table.  Mandell quotes a line from the play, “’Don’t let’s do anything,’ it’s almost hard not to do it with an Irish accent.  When I hear Barry, it’s like music.”Â  Arabian nods, “We’re all trying to get a sense of the music.”Â  All of them agree, there’s something about the rhythm and pace of the Irish dialect.  One can hear it in the production, how strands of dialogue bounce and weave into patter.

As Mandell describes Beckett’s voice, with its cadence and lyrical quality, Arabian chimes in, “You do a great version of Beckett.”Â  And so he does. He slips into a memory, and with a slight Irish lilt, he speaks as Beckett , “Well, Alan, how are you?  Things are well, are they?”

Alan Mandell

The conversation circles around, back to the lines.  Armstrong says about them, “They kind of make you nutty.”Â  Mandell offers some consolation to Armstrong regarding the role of Lucky.  “The one thing is, if you’ve learned that speech, you’ll never forget it.  And two, anything else you have to learn will be easy.  As long as you do it before you’re 80.  After 80 it gets harder.”

But Armstrong has a plan. “I’m going to start a recovery group for people who’ve played Lucky, if you want to join.”

Mr. Godot Told Me To Tell You He Won’t Come This Evening, But Surely Tomorrow

The question that always lingers, the one that everyone always wants answered: who is Godot?  Who are they waiting for?  A murmur in the room.  Mandell is the first to chime in with an answer:  “You want to tell me what you’re waiting for?”Â  Some chuckling around the table.  Not only does the play ask questions, but so do the actors. Mandell doesn’t want to answer the question.  Instead, he tells the story of returning home, after working with Beckett.  A professor asked him what he had worked on.  Mandell said, Waiting for Godot (God-oh).  The professor asked, not recognizing the pronunciation, why do you call it that?  Mandell told him, that is how Beckett pronounced the play.  Mandell, taking on the role of the professor, a “eureka!” look passing over his face: “He calls it, God-oh?  I’ve got it.”Â  And the professor ran off.

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern

As far as where the name came from, and its particular pronunciation, Mandell, putting on his Beckett scholar hat, brings up the director of the very first production, Roger Blin, who suggested the name Godot came from the French word godillot, slang for boot.  Of course, when he had the chance, Mandell asked the man himself.  With a twinkle in his eye, Mandell slips into his imitation of Beckett, complete with hands and gesture, “Well, in the South of France, it’s not an uncommon name.  People spelled it differently.”

For Armstrong, he’s not sure if there is an answer for who or what they are waiting for.  And he’s not sure if it matters.  “In the best sense.  In the most freeing and most giving and kindest sense.”

It’s the themes of the play that capture Arabian’s attention.  The play is one of hope and survival.  Even though Vladimir and Estragon keep suffering, “They keep persevering, they don’t give up.”Â  Compared to the history of the earth, humanity’s time has been brief.  “Existence doesn’t really matter, except for us now.”Â  Because tomorrow we might be forgotten.

Barry McGovern, Alan Mandell, Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell

Armstrong weighs in, “Yes, time is relative, but also memory is relative.  And they walk hand in hand.”Â  Arabian points out his belief that the Boy who visits Vladimir and Estragon just might be a memory.  In production, the boy wears all white and calls out to the waiting men.

Mandell seems ready to answer.  “Do you know Endgame?” Beckett’s other great classic.  He pauses.  The room becomes quiet.  He quotes, “Something is taking its course.”Â  Silence.  “That is as much as I believe.”Â  And with that, they go.

Waiting for Godot, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens March 21.  Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2:30 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 1:00 and 6:30 pm. Through April 22. Tickets: $30-65. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012.  Visit www.centertheatregroup.org, the Taper box office or call 213-628-2772.

***All Waiting for Godot production photos by Craig Schwartz

Larry Pontius is a playwright and screenwriter, whose theater work includes multiple New York productions, produced plays in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.  As a television writer, Pontius’s work has been mostly seen in Pakistan, as the writer of Qaatil, Pakistan’s first TV thriller, and international drama series Neeyat, a drama set in New York City.  For more information, please go to www.LPontius.com

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