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BY TRAV S.D. | It’s good to remind ourselves these days that everything is not terrible. Indeed, some things are pretty perfect. The late poet/playwright/novelist Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was one of these perfect things — and so is actor/clown Bill Irwin. And what could the confluence of those two elements be but more perfect, still? Since Sept. 26, the Irish Repertory Theatre has been the seat of such perfection in the form of “On Beckett,” Irwin’s (almost) solo tribute to the author, which will be playing through Nov. 4.
“I can’t escape him,” said Irwin, who first encountered Beckett’s writings in an anthology while a theatre student at UCLA in 1968. Irwin’s increased his already clown-sized footprint considerately since those long-ago student days. A founding member of Pickle Family Circus, Irwin not only took his clowning art to the Broadway stage in shows like “Largely New York,” “Fool Moon,” and “Old Hats,” but became a Tony Award-winning dramatic actor (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), a respected film actor (“Interstellar,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Eight Men Out”), and recipient of MacArthur, Guggenheim, and Fulbright awards. But, according to Irwin, Beckett is never very far away, especially since he began working with the Open Theater’s Joe Chaikin on a production of Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing” in the early ’90s. The writer’s most famous play, “Waiting for Godot,” has also been a major part of Irwin’s theatrical resume; he’s appeared in close to a dozen productions. Both works are incorporated into “On Beckett.”
“I am captivated by [Beckett’s] language,” Irwin gushed. “I’m not a scholar. I’m not a biographer. I’m an actor and a clown and that’s how I relate to this material.”
“On Beckett” is a sui generis, a kind of master class on the artist: 78 swift-moving minutes that combine extremely thoughtful commentary on the writer’s work with illustrational interpretations of challenging passages. The Nobel Prize-winning Beckett was a Titan of the 20th century avant-garde, Sphinx-like, possibly hopeless to decipher, maximally minimalist, opaque, fragmented, and even eccentric with regard to punctuation. Further, the Beckett Estate is famously inflexible in enforcing the late author’s wishes that his works be produced without cutting or alteration.
It is beyond the skill level of most ordinary actors and clowns to act Beckett’s words. It requires rare physical and verbal dexterity, and immense intelligence — either emotional or intellectual, ideally both. It requires, in short, a Bill Irwin. Irwin’s moment-to-moment technical skill in putting across some of Beckett’s stream-of-consciousness-laden word feasts is downright dazzling. And all the while he lays out the huge questions one must confront when performing Beckett. In the monologues, such as in “Texts for Nothing,” he wonders, “Who is speaking? Is it many people? Or are we inside the head of one person?” And yet he brings a becoming humility to the quest. “I would hate to get too pedantic,” he said. And miraculously, he isn’t.
“I’ve been working on the piece for a while now,” Irwin noted. “My dear friends at the ACT [American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco] gave me a home and a place to develop it, and we presented it at their Strand Theater last year.” “On Beckett” was also workshopped at New York’s Vineyard Theatre and the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
As for how it came to the Irish Rep, Irwin said, “I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time now. I live just a couple of block away. Beckett’s Irish and I pitched it to them. It just made sense. It’s pretty perfect.”
Irwin himself also has Irish roots. In addition to his own family connection, he spent a year in Belfast as a college exchange student. “That’s part of the ‘call’ for me here, too,” he explained.
One of the special joys of this production is when the famous neo-vaudeville performer explores the intersection of his clown identity and his Irishness, to wonder aloud if the traditional, stereotypical “Comic Irishman” played a role in Beckett’s unique voice. Irwin reminds us that the poet, born in 1906, grew up attending music hall performances, where he would have seen performers like that. Seeing Bill Irwin cock his trademark derby back on his head like George M. Cohan and Pat Rooney, to shadow box and stagger like a drunk here in the heart of Chelsea — that by itself is worth the price of admission. This, too, has its serious side, as the actor speculates that buried deep in Beckett’s bone dry, almost mathematical writings, are hints of underlying violence.
Yet, Irwin reminds us, he himself is an American, and part of his goal as a Beckett actor is to look at it with that perspective in mind. (Although he does humorously admit in the show that after years of pronouncing Beckett’s most famous (if unseen) character, Go-DOT, he finally drank the British Kool-Aid and now says “GOD-ot.”)
The word “metaphysics” unavoidably gets used by Irwin in talking about Beckett, but ultimately he reminds us that at the end of the day, he is a clown. And though he happens to be one of the best in the world, here too he displays characteristic humility. When reminded that he is stepping into the shoes of guys like Buster Keaton and Bert Lahr in interpreting Beckett, he laughed and said, in that All-American Californian voice, “Oh gosh! To put me in company with Keaton! I can’t ever go there!”
His fans would beg to differ.
Through Nov. 4. Wed. at 3pm & 8pm; Thurs. at 7pm; Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3pm & 8pm; and Sun. at 3pm. At the Irish Rep Theatre (132 W. 22nd St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.). For tickets ($50-$70), call 212-727-2737 or visit irishrep.org. Artist info at thebillirwin.com.