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Barry McGovern says "I'll Go On" to Beckett

Barry McGovern as Malone in "I'll Go On"
Barry McGovern as Malone in "I'll Go On"
Craig Schwartz

Theater: Beckett's "I'll Go On"

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Have you ever listened intently to someone explaining, succinctly and articulately, an esoteric concept you never understood before, until you suddenly exclaimed triumphantly, “Aha! I got it!” Only to discover, a moment later, when someone asks you to explain it to them, that the whole explanation has disappeared like a puff of smoke and your mind is completely blank?

Once, when we lived in Norway, my husband and I went to a lecture where the featured speaker was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin spoke in Russian and an interpreter translated his remarks into Norwegian. We didn’t speak either language, but as I sat there nodding and smiling, and laughing when everyone else did, I really felt I was getting the gist of the conversation. Until my husband, apparently impressed with my heretofore-unsuspected language skills, asked me what was being said. And I realized that I didn’t have a clue!

And so it is with Beckett.

Samuel Beckett is one of my favorite playwrights. But I have to admit that a great deal of my enjoyment comes from the pleasure and satisfaction of actually “getting” what he’s talking about. Sometimes.

Beckett speaks a language all his own and, combined with shouts and outbursts and stillness and non-sequiturs, it could be Norwegian. But as articulated by Barry McGovern, considered one of the finest interpreters of Beckett’s work, the words just sing.

McGovern, a former member of Ireland’s Abbey Theater Company, has performed in many of Beckett’s plays, including an award-winning production of Waiting for Godot at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in 2012. (In that same year Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, starring John Hurt, was presented at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.)

McGovern has come to Los Angeles once again under the auspices of the CTG and with director Colm O’Briain, founder of Ireland’s first multi-media venue and artists’ cooperative, to present a stupendous one-man compendium of a Beckett trilogy that he first introduced at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1985. Working then and now with author, reviewer, and educator Gerry Dukes, McGovern selected dramatic excerpts from three of Beckett’s novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and all alone on a virtually empty stage, he creates three unforgettable characters.

The first, Molloy, is a crotchety, rumpled old man who delivers a long, rambling narrative while riding his bicycle to his mother’s house. He has adventures with people and a dog along the way, and a constable who arrests him for sitting on his bicycle in a lewd manner, and finally, he launches into a long digression about his habit of sucking stones and moving them systematically from one pocket to the next in his jacket and his coat.

The second character, Malone, is introduced lying prone on what appears to be a coffin. It’s actually his bed in an asylum or a hospital (Malone is not sure which), but he is preparing himself to die as he talks about his life (“I eat and excrete,” he says) and the people he interacts with in the asylum. “I shall die tepid,” he declares, and “I forgive nobody.”

And finally, there is the man so obscure that he is introduced as “the unnamable.” Who he is and where he is is undetermined, and his monologue is existential, ranting, and largely incoherent. He is confused and fearful, of oblivion, of death, and of silence. But his last words are “I’ll go on.”

And for McGovern, it’s on to a standing ovation.

I’ll Go On continues Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday at 1 pm and 6:30 pm through February 9th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., in Culver City. For tickets call 213-628-2772.