Do not shy away from seeing Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett” if you feel lacking in your knowledge of the literary master’s work. Irwin acknowledges that he is not a scholar nor has he read all of Beckett’s literary output; rather he is motivated to sort out and understand “the characters that have taken permanent residence inside his head.” In this performance that he conceived, it is the actor’s experience, perspective and the playfulness that holds the audience in fascinated attention. Irwin skillfully weaves back and forth reciting passages from Beckett’s works with his own reflections and commentary while engaging and entertaining the audience with his most delightful clowning physicality, range of character voices, and, of course, manipulation of bowler hats.
photo by Craig Schwartz Photography
With a feeling of lightness and the audience put at ease and freed up to laugh, Irwin takes us deeper through Beckett’s much darker existential exposition of the human condition tinged by the confrontation with despair, violence, aggression, cruelty, and self loathing. Irwin recites from a series of passages from Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing” that exposes the rambling self-talk free-association babble of inner consciousness. Beckett’s words are precisely spoken, though our attempt to understand is elusive, and perhaps unnecessary, as we are left to rely on Beckett’s suggestion, “it means what it says” and be moved by musicality and cadence of the language. Irwin reminds us that Beckett, who was Irish, mostly wrote in French, and that his work was translated back to English and interpreted by actors like himself, with an American dialect.
During the latter part of the show, Irwin shares his experiences performing in two high-profile presentations of “Waiting for Godot” — the 1988 production directed by Mike Nichols that starred Robin Williams and Steve Martin, in which he played Lucky, and in the 2009 Broadway revival, where he played Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon, with John Goodman as slave-driving Pozzo. From Nichol’s guidance, Irwin explains and demonstrates to us the structure of the play and the significance of stage blocking that affects the intricate emotional relationships of the characters. As an additional theatrical curiosity, Irwin relates how after working with British director Anthony Page, he chooses to pronounce the unseen character’s name as “God-o.”
For 90 minutes the merged artistry of Irwin and Beckett gives us a insight into how to laugh at our shared humanity navigating a world of turmoil. Bill Irwin is a Tony-winning actor, director, writer and clown. “On Beckett” premiered at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York City on October 3, 2018. Scenic Design by Charlie Corcoran, Lighting Design by Michael Gottlieb, and select performance by Carl Barber or Benjamin Taylor as the Boy.
“On Beckett” continues at the Center Theatre Group’s intimate 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through October 27, 2019. http://CenterTheatreGroup.org