On Beckett Review – Bill Irwin’s Reminiscences

Bill Irwin - Photo by Craig Schwartz.

When the world’s greatest living clown decides to take on Samuel Beckett, his personal hero, things can get interesting. In a tribute to the famed Irish author, Irwin has fun with Beckett’s stage directions as he recounts some of Beckett’s “small print” with enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek. Although Beckett’s directions were specific to a fault, they failed to give a clue about what emotion they were aiming for – but Irwin deals with this omission with gusto as he tumbles right into the center of Beckett’s universe with aplomb and a childlike eagerness to do right by the master.

Bill Irwin – Photo by Craig Schwartz.

When asked about his long fascination with Beckett, Irwin cited Beckett’s “Act without Words,” a dialogue-free one-act play that consisted entirely of stage directions (Los Angeles Times, 9/18/19). After all, what could be more exciting for a man who would become one of the greatest physical comics in decades than a play without words – a play which depended on the body to convey each and every meaning? But it was not until three years ago, when Irwin brought the idea to American Conservatory Theatre artistic director Carey Perloff, that the idea grew wings and took off. In 2017, Irwin premiered the show in San Francisco. Subsequently, he performed an off-Broadway run in 2018. Finally, the idea coalesced into its current form at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. Currently, ON BECKETT has found its way to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.

Bill Irwin – Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Irwin has an enticing fix on Beckett’s work. With his elastic face and boneless body, he takes Beckett to a new level. Leaning on Beckett’s expressed love of Dublin’s music halls and circus routines – this is a man who worshipped Buster Keaton and adored Charlie Chaplin and bowler hats – Irwin fit right in. From the somewhat tame “Texts for Nothing, “Watt,” and “The Unnamable,” Irwin hops right into a serious favorite among Beckett aficionados, “Waiting for Godot” (or God – oh, as Irwin prefers). After all, Irwin appeared as Lucky in the 1988 production directed by Mike Nichols. In 2009, he played Vladimir in an all-star cast. And it is here that Irwin shines.

Bill Irwin – Photo by Craig Schwartz.

This is a show focused on both fellow actors and audience members. While walking from the theater after the performance, this reviewer heard many a well-deserved comment about Irwin’s “Master Class on Beckett.” ON BECKETT goes to prove that it’s possible for a virtuoso to clown around with the works of a literary great – and come out on top. Besides, it seemed obvious that, had he still been around, Beckett would have soundly approved of Irwin’s approach to his iconic works. A chuckle and a shuffle have found their home in Irwin’s ON BECKETT.

Benjamin Taylor and Bill Irwin – Photo by Craig Schwartz.

ON BECKETT runs through October 27, 2019, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Tickets range from $30 to $75. For information and reservations, call 213-628-2772 or go online.

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