Los Angeles Times
February 23, 2000

Theater Review:

'Waiting for Godot' with Stoic Grace, Solid Acting


We're born "astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of cries."

Such is the stoic observation of a homeless man killing time, while time returns the insult. The lines contain a terrible beauty. More often, however, Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" is a simple play ("Why," Beckett wondered, "do people have to complicate a thing so simple?") taken up with weak-bladder jokes, hat-switching routines straight out of Laurel and Hardy, petty cruelties and "private nightmares," scored to the rhythms of music hall and vaudeville patter.

The result remains, stubbornly, the key work of our post-Atomic Age.

The Matrix Theatre Company revival is a good, solid "Waiting for Godot." If it leaves you waiting for . . . something, it's something so many "Godots" lack. Director Andrew J. Robinson respects the material up, down and sideways. He has some fine actors at his dispatch. But only rarely do we get the elusive Buster Keaton effect.

Beckett's own favorite clown (and later, collaborator) brought to each new cosmic indignity a blend of craziness and gravitas. Comic poetry like Keaton's, you don't find often. In an otherwise worthy production, director Robinson and company acknowledge Beckett's comic and tragic impulses--but they remain separate. We miss those junctures where tragedy and comedy do little hat-switching routines of their own, and then move on.

Beckett completed "Waiting for Godot" in January 1949, after a productive three-month blur. Four years later, the modestly scaled Theatre Babylone in Paris took it on, though the theater itself was flat broke. If "I am going to close up shop," the theater manager said, "I may as well close up in beauty."

The play's language is that of a man who struggled to believe in the power of language to begin with. "Joyce believed in words," Beckett wrote of his friend James Joyce. "All you had to do was rearrange them and they would express what you wanted." Beckett didn't share that optimism. Yet his tramps Vladimir and Estragon, waiting by a tree to see a man about an assignment of some sort, fend off the worst--intimations of mortality, the fear that death won't come--with words.

Per the Matrix stratagem, "Godot" features two actors alternating in each role. At Friday's opening night performance, David Dukes played Vladimir opposite Robin Gammell's Estragon, with Tony Amendola as Pozzo, landowner and slaveholder, and JD Cullum as Lucky, the unlucky slave. The role of A Boy, messenger for someone named Godot, was played by Will Rothhaar.

It's an authoritative ensemble, from Rothhaar's wary, urgent Boy on up. Gammell relies on a doleful, grousing attack throughout, but he's touching all the same. Amendola, very good in the recent Old Globe Theatre "Cymbeline," tends to blast the insults in ways recalling F. Murray Abraham in the Steve Martin-Robin Williams Broadway revival. Yet he brings considerable force and nastiness to the material, nicely counterbalanced by Cullum, whose white fright wig pays homage to the original 1953 Lucky, Jean Martin.

In Dukes' performance, you're given an artful sense of a dandy fallen on extremely hard times. This tramp is like Franklin Pangborn after the fall of the stock market, or the Bomb, or something more gradual. Working up a dance routine with Gammell, or grimly uttering the observation that "habit is a great deadener," Dukes gives this "Godot" a flash of subtlety and grace.

"Waiting for Godot," Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends April 30. $ 20. (323) 852-1445. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Tony Amendola / Granville Van Dusen:   Pozzo
JD Cullum / Alastair Duncan:   Lucky
David Dukes / Gregory Itzin:   Vladimir
Robin Gammell / John Vickery:   Estragon
Will Rothhaar / Willie Itzin:   A Boy
Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Andrew J. Robinson. Set by Victoria Profitt. Costumes by Maggie Morgan. Lighting by J. Kent Inasy. Props by Chuck Olsen. Stage manager Anna Belle Gilbert.

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