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'On Beckett' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Bill Irwin | Craig Schwartz

On Beckett
, created and performed by Bill Irwin, is a celebration of and discussion about the work of famed dramatist Samuel Beckett.

Irwin begins his performance, his presentation, by laying out precisely what the evening will entail–a clean summary of the texts that will be dramatized and considered, and for approximately how long the show will run. He speaks to the audience in a friendly, familiar manner. A few times throughout the roughly 90-minute performance, he mentions that he hopes he's not coming off too "artsy."

Irwin leaves the audience with this qualification before diving into Beckett's text: He is not a biographer; he is an actor with an intimate knowledge of Beckett's works as one can only possess when one repeatedly speaks a writer's words aloud.

The humility is nice. The last thing I want to listen to is a pretentious intellectual tell me how to interpret Samuel Beckett for 90 minutes. Irwin makes it clear that that's not what this is. 

You see, Bill Irwin can't seem to get Samuel Beckett out of his head. On Beckett is the result.

Irwin goes back and forth between performing snippets of Beckett text (Texts For Nothing, The Unnamable, Watt, Waiting for Godot, and Endgame) and exploring the text's possibilities with the audience. During the discussion portions of the evening, there is no fourth wall present–it feels as though Irwin is sharing a few thoughts with friends. He slips in and out of performance and discussion, performance and discussion, as though the audience couldn't possibly marvel at his character and clown work as much as I'm sure they consistently do. At least at the staging I attended, the audience insisted on applauding each of Irwin's mini-performances. Each time, he reacted with surprise and a throw-away hand gesture that let us know oh, now that won't be necessary. Again, I was charmed by the humility.

Irwin is an experienced clown. He appears more comfortable, more himself in oversized trousers than ones that fit his frame. His bits throughout the show are funny, simple, honest, silly, as a clown's reality should be.

One of the questions Irwin poses in his performance is whether clown work appropriately compliments Beckett's writing. We certainly know how Irwin feels about the matter, and by the end of the performance, the audience can't help but agree.

I would have liked a bit more variation in Irwin's deliverance of Beckett's work. Though Irwin presented several characters, they sounded very similar, almost Gollum-esque. Irwin speaks about how he perceives Beckett's writings to be the voice inside one's head, or our collective inner voice. Perhaps that was his way of illustrating that we all have the same inner voice, or at least they're very similar. Still, almost selfishly, I would have loved to hear Beckett's words via Irwin's instrument dressed up in different timbres.

At this point in the review, I'd be remiss to fail to mention the other very present element of the performance I attended: the pointedly vocal audience. At every mention of a new Beckett work, at every utterance of another great mind of his time, the audience, laughably, let Irwin, and perhaps more spot-on, their colleagues, know that they were right there with him at each and every reference. Hoo! 'Waiting for Godot,' you say? Yes I know it! Don't you doubt that I know it! This, of course, was communicated via heightened laughter and big, affirmative murmurings. We are still at the theatre after all!

But what can one expect from an audience attending a performance/discussion about Samuel Beckett? For the audience to be as gifted in humility as Bill Irwin?       

It was an evening of examining, up close and personal, human nature and what it means to be alive. Thank you, Bill Irwin, for allowing Samuel Beckett to burrow into you. And thank you for doing so with clown shoes and baggy trousers on.

On Beckett runs through October 27 at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre.

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