Every once in a while, a stage production comes along that simply stops you in your tracks. Such a production usually is of the kind of play that asks in general what on earth we're doing on this Earth, what exactly is transpiring as the seconds, and hours, and years click by, like our heartbeats.
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is such a play, overly familiar to those weaned on the theater, and yet still inscrutable to those who prefer diversion to rumination in their entertainments.
Luminaries such as Harold Pinter bowed in humility to Beckett's breadth of vision, though Beckett considered Godot a facile work compared with his more terse plays and novels, such as Endgame and Malone Dies.
Michael Arabian's staging of Godot at the Mark Taper Forum, through April 22, is quite simply the finest rendition of this play seen on local stages, surpassing a version from Ireland's Gate Theatre performed at UCLA 12 years ago, though Barry McGovern, who plays Vladimir at the Taper, was in that production, too. It may even be better than the marvelous version in 1976 presented by Los Angeles Actors Theatre and filmed the following year for PBS, with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar, Bruce French, Ralph Waite and Todd Lookinland.
Like King Lear, Waiting for Godot is an allegorical poem about everything that matters: how we pass the time with old habits and clichés, the collapse of social responsibility, why we bond and why we don't, and the incrementally slow crash of aging and mortality. It dwells on the slippage of memory so that one day, one year and even one decade are indistinguishable from the next — leading to one character's desperate need for some affirmation that he actually exists.
Its homeless tramp duo, played at the Taper by McGovern and Alan Mandell, try to divert themselves on a barren landscape where thugs come out at night, with jokes, stories, remembrances, prayers, strategies to hang themselves from the one tree in sight — while waiting for some kind of salvation from a man with a white beard. That savior's messenger (LJ Benet) is a child who perpetually promises that his Mr. Godot is coming the next day.
The "action" consists of two visits, one in each act, by a master and a slave, Pozzo and Lucky (respectively James Cromwell and Hugo Armstrong) — a pompous, whip-yielding egotist and a forlorn human beast in rags, en route to the market, where the slave is to be sold for a pittance. Lucky, the slave, used to dance and to think, but he has grown too weary to continue. When one of the tramps, Estragon, in a pique of indignation over such human cruelty, tries to comfort the beast, Lucky kicks him in the shins. The old tramp will never help the needy again.
Productions usually veer into either the tendentious or the slapstick, whereas the painful comedy of how we're mostly wasting our precious time lies in a tiny sliver of a zone between the two. The triumph of Arabian's production lies in its agility to find comedy without parodying the gravity of what underlies it, to find elegance in the play's oh-so-gentle cadences without letting it sink into a maudlin mire. It's not perfect, but it's just about as close as it comes.
As much as Arabian avoids the traps of sentimentality and overwrought comedy, both Billy Elliot the Musical (in a touring production of the 10-Tony-winning spectacle at the Pantages through May 13) and In Paris, a touring production starring Mikhail Baryshnikov of Dmitry Krymov's adaptation of a story by Ivan Bunin (at Santa Monica's Broad Stage through April 21), reach assertively for any number of pandering extremes.
The former, directed by Stephen Daldry and adapted from the 2000 movie (also directed by Daldry), tells the story of an 11-year-old boy in the coal mining town of Durham, England, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was waging war on labor unions and thereby decimating the livelihoods of the local workforce.
Amidst the travails of the conflict between the miners and the cops, and among the miners themselves, a local, earthy dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking), discovers in Billy a rare talent for ballet. Through the pressures of local homophobia, the outrage of his father (Rich Hebert, both gruff and tender), the memory of his late mother (Kat Hennessey), and his violent brother (Cullen R. Titmas), Billy (played by Zach Manske on the night I attended; four actors alternate in the role) finds that his discipline and talent and the transcendence of ballet can lift him above the earthly pits into a state of exaltation. Some connections are cashed in on, and young Billy lands an audition with the Royal Ballet. Can he fly away, like Peter Pan?
Lee Hall wrote the movie's script and the play's book and lyrics. They brought in Elton John to write the music. That was probably a mistake.
The movie was a small and tenderhearted story. The musical, with the input of John's music, slathers the movie's jewel-like essence with layers of sediment and sentiment until it has the emotional agility of a boulder. The humor is overplayed. The sentimentality, in scenes between Billy and his late mother, simply cloys.
On the performance I attended, dialects were way off, and young Billy could move gracefully, but his lack of ability to carry a tune or a persuasive acting scene resulted in a brash and hollow spectacle.
In Paris is based on Bunin's story about an affair in Paris between a former soldier in Russia's White Army (Baryshnikov) and a waitress (Anna Sinyakina) whose husband is away at war. Dmitry Krymov's staging has a striking visual and aural appeal, for a while. The seven actors speak mostly in Russian, with some French, while Tei Blow's video design has English-language translations rolling up and over the mock cardboard cutout set pieces of Maria Tregubova's design. There's unimpeachable beauty when the actors sing dialogue a cappella in Russian, while we watch the stage bathed in floating words. This would suggest an event about language, or translation, or something. But the story that unfolds is a predictable and trite romance, for which the marvelous theatrical devices attempt, in vain, to lend some gravity. There's little mystery to boy getting girl. What ensues after that is similarly unsurprising.
Krymov has great fun moving set pieces around the mechanically revolving stage, so that one minute we hear offstage voices singing, or playing Dmitry Volkov's haunting compositions, and then we see the ensemble "backstage."
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Baryshnikov stands around a lot, striking suave postures. Sinyakina squeaks out her role like an animated Petrushka doll. If there was a larger point to all this, it escaped me.
WAITING FOR GODOT | Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through April 22 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL | Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John | Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through May 13 | (213) 365-3500 | broadwayla.org
IN PARIS | Directed and adapted by Dmitry Krymov from the story by Ivan Bunin | Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica | Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; through April 21 | (310) 434-3414 | thebroadstage.com