If you live in Los Angeles or plan to be in town some weekend through October 27th, it cannot be stressed enough that you must make time to see On Beckett at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, a new play conceived and performed by Bill Irwin. (This Irish Repertory Theatre production premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City on October 3, 2018.) To call Mr. Irwin a brilliant gem in the treasure chest that is American theatre is to understate his abilities as a performer. He has crafted original pieces that have featured his exceptional skills as a clown and more than proven his abilities as an actor on the stage as well as both screens, small and large. His physical work is powerful, even when (if not especially when) he makes us laugh without saying a single word. In this play, Mr. Irwin invites us to share his connection to Samuel Beckett’s work, describing it as a viral body of texts that have all but infected his brain, leaving a mark that seems to have only grown all the more indelible over time.
Early on, he acknowledges that Beckett isn’t for everyone. Just as he was stating that a large number of people find the author inaccessible and even boring, one couple in our audience stood up and made their slow way to the exit. The exit they chose was downstage right, making their egress an event that was impossible to miss. Mr. Irwin hardly paused his speech but his eyes clocked the couple, then shifted to the audience in a knowing glance that had all of us laughing. You couldn’t have written it better. He had already captured our attention from the moment he appeared suddenly before us, the only figure on a stage with few set pieces to speak of, all of them clad in black, but that laughter cemented our bond and made that performance feel even more like Mr. Irwin had invited us into his living room for some tea and a couple of war stories.
Over 90 minutes, the play explores eight pieces of Beckett’s writing and each time Mr. Irwin describes his experience with the work, how it impacted him, what it was like to discover the piece and how he rediscovers it time and again. He wonders whether the work is suited to a clown, talks about the silhouette of the character that Beckett crafts and how punctuation (or the lack of it, more often than not) informs choices that are made about a character. The first piece is from Texts for Nothing, Text #1 and before he starts speaking, Mr. Irwin physically morphs into the figure of a man whose crooked back, skewed neck, bent knees and pattern of speech overtake its creator completely — he disappears. When he morphs (I honestly can’t think of a better word for it, the shifts in physicality are so specific and seamless) back to his neutral stance, it all seems even more remarkable.
The second piece he features is The Unnamable, followed by Watt and then Texts for Nothing, Text #9. Before each recitation/performance, he talks about the writing, about Beckett, and over time he brings out costume pieces that many will be familiar with if they know his work; the baggy pants, the oversized jackets, the hats. When he gets to Waiting for Godot, he takes his costume several steps further into the realm of the vaudevillian clown and discusses the importance of hats in the play. He also discusses the title of the play and the way Americans pronounce it (gud-oh) versus the way the name is pronounced in Britain (gawd-o). Having performed the play many times in different parts he goes into detail with a couple of scenes, examining potential interpretations for lines that he says he would love to explore anew, given the chance to act in the piece again (that would be wonderful, let’s hope it happens). He digs into Estragon and Vladimir’s relationship and talks about his performance as Lucky in Mike Nichols’ production of the play at Lincoln Center. Robin Williams played Estragon, Steve Martin played Vladimir, F. Murray Abraham played Pozzo and Lukas Haas was A Boy. Mr. Irwin talks about Lucky’s three-page speech, how the other characters relate to it and the detailed stage directions that Beckett employs throughout the play that prompt Estragon, Pozzo, and Vladimir to go to great physical lengths to remove Lucky’s hat and stop his speech.
Mr. Irwin talks about and performs a piece from Endgame, but it’s the work he delivers on Waiting for Godot that must firmly take Samuel Beckett out of the realm of the merely absurd and deliver him into the realm of the truly human for anyone who is paying attention. It would be easy to dismiss Beckett’s work as nonsense made heavy with the label ‘existentialism’ round its neck, about to drown, unnoticed, but Mr. Irwin shows us over and over just how wrong that would be. The physical nature of those stage directions that Beckett crafted makes it seem his work is more clown-friendly than not, even as the writing seems particularly willing to, as Mr. Irwin put it, step right up and face despair. Seen in this light, Beckett does indeed seem to be a kind of warrior-poet, facing the darkness but not willing to eliminate it for in that darkness, we find ourselves.
For the last piece, Mr. Irwin sheds most of the clown layers he has put on throughout the night and takes out a cap he tells us he has had since clown school. I might have imagined it, but it seemed like some people in the audience let out a nostalgic murmur or sigh – we’ve been sitting in his kitchen having tea after all – we’re all friends now. For Texts for Nothing, Text #11, Mr. Irwin tucks himself into a black box so that all we see is his head, shoulders, and hands. His play has taken us on quite a journey, full of characters, insights into his process and a true love for Beckett’s work that he shares with us to the point where we can’t help but take a little bit of that home. For ninety minutes, we get to sit with a master craftsman and hear how he has worked with another master craftsman. If that isn’t beautiful, nothing is.
The creative team features scenic design by Charlie Corcoran, costume design by Martha Hally, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb and sound design by M. Florian Staab. The production stage manager is Lora K. Powell. The role of the Boy will be performed in rotating repertory by Carl Barber and Benjamin Taylor.
Tickets for On Beckett are available at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.