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Waiting for Ireland's Gate Keepers

Dublin company known for reviving expatriates' plays will bring 'Godot' to L.A.

October 22, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for Calendar

The Irish playwright and novelist George Moore once wrote that the Irish don't do very well in Ireland. "Even the patriot has to leave Ireland to get a hearing," he lamented.

Indeed, with such notable exceptions as the fiercely nationalistic Yeats, Irish writers have tended to flee their native shores, casting their literary efforts upon bigger European ponds.

Since its inception in 1928, the Gate Theatre Dublin has made something of a specialty out of reviving the works of Ireland's expatriate geniuses. Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, the founders of the Gate, favored Wilde. The Gate's first season included a sensational production of Wilde's "Salome"--the first Irish production of the play. And in his later career, the flamboyant MacLiammoir toured widely as Wilde in his solo recital piece, "The Importance of Being Oscar."

In recent years, the Gate, under the guidance of artistic director Michael Colgan, has become a leading exponent of the works of Samuel Beckett, another eminent Irish expatriate and the winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature. Beckett's famously elliptical dramas include "Waiting for Godot," a play that many believe reconfigured the landscape of the contemporary theater.

Like "Endgame," Beckett's later play, "Godot" is essentially a metaphysical burlesque, a dialogue among doomed clowns who natter pointlessly and pointedly about everything--and nothing.

It's challenging stuff, not for the fainthearted. But although Colgan, head of the Gate since 1983 and a native Dubliner, is an established champion of Beckett, he prefers to play down the Beckett-Gate link.

"Our emphasis is wider than just one playwright," says Colgan, snatching a few moments to talk by phone from Dublin, where he is working full throttle on the Dublin Theatre Festival. "As a theater, we are attracted to works that are intrinsically good but unjustly neglected. And I feel that was certainly the case with Beckett, at least when the Gate first began producing his work."

In 1991, only two years after Beckett's death, the Gate presented the first comprehensive Beckett retrospective--all 19 plays. In 1996, the retrospective was mounted to widespread critical and popular acclaim at the Lincoln Center Festival and again, in 1999, at the Barbican in London.

Now, after several limited U.S. engagements, including a brief stint in Northern California, the Gate's production of "Waiting for Godot"--staged by its original director, Walter Asmus, and featuring many of the original actors dating back to the Gate's seminal 1988 production--is coming to UCLA's Freud Playhouse for five performances beginning Wednesday.

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Remarkably, the Gate has had only two artistic directorates in its 70-plus years of existence. After the deaths of MacLiammoir and Edwards, and following a brief interregnum in which the theater had no head, Colgan was named artistic director.

Alan Stanford, a veteran Gate actor who plays Pozzo in "Godot," was there for the changing of the guard. Originally from England, Stanford is a naturalized Irish citizen who has lived in Ireland for 30 years.

"I knew Hilton [Edwards] and Micheal [MacLiammoir] very well," says Stanford, speaking from Iowa City, Iowa, a tour stop for "Godot." "In their heyday, both Hilton and Micheal were part of a new wave in the theater. Both came out of the Edwardian era and were moving toward minimalism, toward the avant-garde.

"Besides being an actor, Micheal was a brilliant set designer. And Hilton, who acted in the Old Vic, was on the cutting edge of modern theater lighting, which was really in its infancy when he was coming along. If you look at the innovative lighting in 'Citizen Kane'--the revolutionary way that Welles uses light--well, that's directly Hilton's influence."

Stanford is referring, of course, to Orson Welles, perhaps the most famous of the Gate's alumni, which also include James Mason and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Welles' debut on the Gate stage in 1931 at age 16 has passed into legend. The now largely forgotten play was the melodrama "Jew Suss," in which Welles played a dastardly nobleman fully 35 years his senior.

By all accounts, Welles was electrifying. In his biography of Welles, Simon Callow recounts Welles' triumphant entree into the theater--and also details the profound effect that Edwards and MacLiammoir had on Welles' later life and work, an influence Welles tended to denigrate in his endlessly revisionist reminiscences. (In fact, MacLiammoir was something of a revisionist himself. Born Alfred Willmore in London, he changed his name and became fluent in Gaelic to pass himself off as an Irish native.)

Deny it though he might, Welles learned the art of multi-tasking from his Irish mentors, themselves masters-of-all-trades whose capacity for work was as monumental as their appetites. Friends, partners and longtime lovers, Edwards and MacLiammoir were as openly homosexual as their era allowed.

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