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Bill Irwin, On Beckett, Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett, Irish Repertory Theatre
Bill Irwin, 'On Beckett, Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett,' Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): Bill Irwin in ‘On Beckett’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre

Has there ever been a more elegant, erudite and riotously funny clown prince of theater than Bill Irwin? Not only has the Tony Award winner mastered the innards of pacing, rhythm, mime, body visualizations and timing of the comedic. Irwin writes, directs, acts. What does he not do well theatrically and dramatically? In what he attempts, Irwin delights. In his On Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Irwin examines the opaque and timeless works of Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett. What an exquisite evening Irwin conceives, directs and performs.

On Beckett: Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett introduces us to lesser-known works, and he revisits the often performed Waiting For Godot with the assistance of Finn O’Sullivan as the boy. Irwin appeared in the 2009 production of Godot and received a Drama Desk Award nomination.

Finn O'Sullivan, Bill Irwin, On Beckett, Samuel Beckett, Irish Repertory Theatre
(L to R): Finn O’Sullivan, Bill Irwin in ‘On Beckett: Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett,’ Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg).

As he presents Beckett’s less familiar writings, he acknowledges the importance of the playwright’s Irish voice, identity, and heritage. Notably, Irwin showcases passages from Beckett’s elusive Texts For Nothing (13 short prose pieces), pointing out that Beckett wrote the arcane prose pieces in French, then translated them into English, his native tongue that Irwin identifies as the “familiar familial voice.” As an Irishman writing in French, Beckett maintained his uniquely Irish ethos but received widespread acceptance in France initially. The irony astounds as it is “the product of a complex translation exercise.”

The prose pieces Irwin performs, #1, #9, and #11, are masterworks about being, absence, presence, and vacancy, all interior dialogues and questions. They reveal the common man/woman’s struggle with self in a massive inner argument that represents individual consciousness. And they reveal the human condition of impoverishment, failure, exile, loss. In the passages Irwin selects, Beckett wrangles the concept of consciousness. Indeed, these excerpts reveal the act of viewing oneself in despair, in parallel with the self experiencing despair.

On Beckett, Exploring the Works of Samuel Beckett,Samuel Beckett, Bill Irwin, Irish Repertory Theatre
Bill Irwin in ‘On Beckett, Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett,” conceived and performed by Bill Irwin at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Thus, from both perspectives Beckett suggests questions about existence, survival, struggle, and purpose. The will “not to go on” while “going on” remains paramount in Beckett’s darkest, bleakest comedy. These elements Irwin melds with the cliché of the Comic Irishman “who has waiting to do” and “struggles with the notion of ease, and his placement in the larger scheme of things.”

In his comments before and after excerpts from Beckett’s novels The Unnamable and Watt, Irwin questions: “Is he making fun of the way consciousness works?” Or “is he offering a portrait of consciousness?” As we appreciate this rare experience that Irwin delivers with aplomb, we understand Beckett’s extraordinary contributions. Not only did he assist in the transformation of English modernist literature, he was credited as integral to the Theatre of the Absurd along with Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter. Whether he would have appreciated the latter is debatable.

Bill Irwin, Samuel Beckett, On Beckett, Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett, Irish Repertory Theatre
Bill Irwin, ‘On Beckett, Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett,’ Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Notably, through his discussion we get to realize another facet of the diamond that is Bill Irwin’s artistry. In acting Beckett, he questions and appropriates the language and suggested meaning for himself. All of this pertains to and infuses his own relationship to art, acting, clowning, and theatrical expression. Shepherding us through Beckett’s language, Irwin ignites our passion. And he makes Beckett and perhaps ourselves more comprehensible in all the abstruse glory of the incomprehensible tragicomedy of life. Indeed, in his “Introduction” Irwin discusses how Beckett’s unforgettable words have gone viral within him, have haunted him. Certainly, the language resounds in his “head,” “heart,” “brain,” “mind,” “psyche,” “body.” This interesting admission yields that Beckett has been integral to Irwin’s evolution as a man and an actor, as a clown and an artist.

Irwin’s comments sparkle with witty self-effacement. For example in outlining the evening, Irwin references the show lasting 86 minutes or so and quips, “I say this by way of reassurance.” Indeed, Beckett is not easy. But through Irwin’s humor we gradually become intrigued about his novel approach toward his subject and his singular recognition of Beckett’s language.

Irwin gets inside Beckett as an actor, and also explores his work from the perspective of clown theatrics. The great clown traditions, Irwin tells us, are “the lens through which he views everything.” And indeed, he applies this lens to exploring the extent to which he views Beckett as clown territory. Irwin’s hapless Clown characters and the techniques he employs to achieve this archetype everyperson provide the uplift to laugh at our shared humanity.

Revisiting Beckett from this unusual angle, Irwin’s organic acting and portrayal of Beckett’s clown characters enlightens. Cleverly, his performance and astute commentary about acting and language shine a beacon into Beckett’s mysterious obscure.

Kudos also go to Charlie Corcoran (scene design), Martha Hally (costume consultant), Michael Gottlieb (lighting design), and M. Florian Staab (sound design). Don’t miss seeing this wonderful presentation if you can get tickets. It closes on 4 November. Click here for times and tickets.

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