On Beckett

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Samuel Beckett loved clowns. And Bill Irwin, the premiere clown of the American Theatre, loves Samuel Beckett. On Beckett is Irwin’s personal story of his fascination with the trailblazing Irish writer who wrote in French and whose plays revolutionized dramatic literature in the second half of the 20th Century.

Irwin’s history with Beckett includes two productions of the playwright’s seminal Waiting for Godot (Yes, he does get into the controversy over how Godot is pronounced), featuring starry casts including Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Nathan Lane. But, among them, Irwin is the pure clown like Chaplin and Keaton, the figures who first inspired Beckett.

Nearing 70, he mentions his birth date in the show. Irwin remains an undisputed genius of physical comedy. He can shrink or grow at will, and what he manages by donning a pair of baggy pants is nothing short of the essence of the comic spirit.

Irwin self-deprecatingly introduces the show by insisting that he is no intellectual claiming to have the key to understanding the famously challenging writer. His entrée to the works, and what continues to excite him are the words themselves. The combinations of sounds, the cadences, and the underlying Irish feel of the texts.

His background as a physical performer also gives him a unique understanding of the visual components of Beckett’s art. He convincingly demonstrates the importance of the silhouette in Godot -- the slant of the body and the essential bowler hat. He also offers a hilariously compelling argument against that inevitable iconoclastic director who will insist on making Beckett “relevant” by putting the characters in baseball caps.

Irwin eventually performs the touching final scene from Godot when The Boy appears to tell Vladimir that Godot is not coming, aided by the talented young actor, Benjamin Taylor on opening night. But the bulk of the evening is focused on selections from Beckett’s prose works and novels. Particularly “Texts for Nothing” which pre-dates his more famous theatrical writings. These “Texts for Nothing” passages show more clearly than anything I know Beckett’s indebtedness to James Joyce. While Irwin beautifully animates the excerpts, the performance is unlikely to spur those with only a casual interest in Beckett to the library.

The 90-minute performance speeds by, and one is left with the genuine warmth of Irwin as a performer, his amazing dexterity and mastery of physical gesture, his deep connection to these words, and a renewed appreciation for what Beckett managed to accomplish.

Kirk Douglas Theatre    September 18 – October 27, 2019    www.centertheatregroup.org