BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Directing an iconic play is always a risky business, and Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” is not easy fare. It is thin on plot and heavy on existentialism. “I saw a production when I was younger, and I was going to shoot myself,” a friend joked to me recently.
Obviously, she did not see Michael Arabian’s lucid and expertly staged version, currently running at the Mark Taper Forum through April 22.
Beckett’s play unfolds on a barren landscape dotted with a single tree. There, two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon – or Didi and Gogo – eternally wait for a mysterious figure named Godot, who never seems to appear. As they pass the time, they encounter the peculiar duo of Pozzo and Lucky, who exhibit a master-slave dynamic even in decrepitude.
“Godot” can easily lend itself to a bleak interpretation, given the penchant of existentialist writers like Beckett to reflect the absurdity, alienation, and angst of being. Yet, we can argue that the existentialists were the ultimate “carpe diem” messiahs, espousing the message that we should live in the present with whatever dignity we can muster (and maintain). Arabian locates this sentiment in the genuine affection between Didi and Gogo, who face each day by taking care of one another like an ancient couple.
Arabian demonstrates a nuanced ear for the shifting beats in Beckett’s writing and achieves a fine balance between the play’s comedic cadences, which incorporate elements of vaudeville, and its dark undertones, strikingly captured in Brian Gale’s lighting design, which is rich in shadows and projections of fog.
Alongside skilled direction, “Godot” features a memorable performance by Alan Mandell, who portrays Gogo with the perfect blend of flamboyance and fragility. Though his worn face bespeaks world-weariness, the 84-year-old Mandell puts young men to shame with his stamina.
Its weighty themes notwithstanding, this incarnation of “Godot” is remarkably accessible. My nephew, who accompanied me to the opening night performance, certainly thought so. He is newly a teenager and, therefore, the harshest of critics. His verdict? “Yay for the Armenian director.”
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”