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On Beckett

Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn't any more, I couldn't go on. — an excerpt from Texts for Nothing .
Bill Irwin (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Part lecture, part performance, part clowning, Bill Irwin's On Beckett is r a master class on the absurdist works of Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett. Conceived and performed by Irwin, it not only shakes out Beckett's enigmatic craft but reveals the impact that he has had on Irwin's artistic life over the years.

Irwin wastes no time in getting down to business. When the lights go up, he introduces himself to the audience and tells us he will be "sharing from the prose, the plays, and perhaps the poetry of Samuel Beckett." He tells us that confides that he's NOT a Beckett scholar or biographer but a performer following in the great clown traditions—that he is a clown. Coming from anyone else, this would be sure to draw a chuckle but not here. Irwin attended the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College and found the Pickle Family Circus as a young man before devoting himself to stagework. With many acting awards and honors now in tow, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Foundation Award, Irwin continues to grow as an actor, though never forgetting his clown roots.

Ten minutes in, an image of Beckett is projected on a screen. It's an austere-looking portrait and ideally syncs with Charlie Corcoran's severe, brooding set design and Michael Gottlieb's half-lighting. The only props are a podium at stage right and some plain benches, into which Irwin incorporatse a few others as the performance proceeds. But minimalism is the operative word here.

The piece features six meaty selections, beginning with a swath out of Texts for Nothing. Although a lesser-known prose work, this holds a significance that goes beyond the mere literary for Irwin since it was written in 1950, the year Irwin was born. He performs it in a natural manner and with no affectation though it's full of Beckett's signature ambiguities and non sequitors as exemplifed by the opening line: "Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn't any more, I couldn't go on."

Natural raconteur that he is, Irwin wittily patters between each literary passage, sometimes parsing Beckett's art or recalling a personal backstage story involving one of his own performances in a Beckett play. He also points out that the iconic writer wrote much of his work in French, A phenomenon that has puzzled many people including Irwin, who refers to it as a "complex translation exercise."

To ensure that no stone goes unturned, Irwin dutifully dredges up the word "Existentialism." Since he realizes that the term potentially can be an instant turn-off to an audience and roughly has the same appeal as swallowing a spoonful of castor oil, the audience is assured that they won't be put to sleep with a lot of talk about the existential anguish in the Beckett canon. One almost can hear a collective sigh of relief in the theater as Irwin presses on to the next sequence.

About midway through the show Irwin adopts a clown persona and pulls on some ridiculously over-sized pants. Then, armed with a generous number of hats, he launches into a hat-swapping routine that vaguely mirrors the Act 2 hat-swapping scene from Waiting for Godot. While it's amusing to watch Irwin morph from one identity to the next with the mere flick of a hat, the hat-trick is more than a gag. It visually highlights and amplifies the who-am-I theme that permeates Beckett's work.

It's hard to single out a best moment from this Beckettian showcase. A standout for me was a truncated rendition of Lucky's speech from Waiting for Godot. A wild farrago of language that can test any actor.s mettle (and memorization skills), Irwin not only gives us a hefty sampling of the famous "nonsense" speech, but turns its intricate web of verbal associations into sheer poetry with his finely-tuned voice. Here's a snippet of the verbal juggernaut for those who like to chew on their Beckett at its most baffling: "Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension. . ."

Another especially memorable moment is when young Finn O'Sullivan joins Irwin on stage to re-enact the Act 2 scene from Waiting for Godot in which Vladimir encounters the Boy and questions him about Godot. O'Sullivan, making his Irish Rep debut is totally at ease playing opposite the noted actor.

On Beckett sees Irwin scoring time and again as he celebrates his deep artistic bond with Beckett. Without diluting any of his art, he casts a new light on it and infuses it with his own American voice. And that alone deserves a hallelujah.

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On Beckett
Conceived, performed, and directed by Bill Irwin
Cast in addition to Bill Irwin: Finn O.Sullivan
Sets: Charlie Corcoran
Lighting: Michael Gottlieb Costume consultant: Martha Hally
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Stage Manager: Christine Lemme
Irish Repertory Theatre, at the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, Chelsea neighborhood. . Street. Tickets: $50 to $70. Phone (212) 727.2737 or online at
From 9/26/18; opening 10/03/18; closing 11/04/18.
Wed &Thurs @ 7pm; Fri & Sat @ 8pm; Sat @ 3pm and 8pm; Sun @ 3pm.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 9/29/18

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