Wednesday, February 28, 2024

"On Beckett" at the Guthrie Theater

Friends, you're in for a treat. If you're an actor, or writer, or poet, or director, or any kind of artist, Bill Irwin's solo show On Beckett should be required viewing. And if you're not an artist, but you love art and listening to artists talk about their work (like me), you're going to love it too. Bill Irwin is a veteran actor of screen and stage (he won the 2005 Tony for best actor in a play for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), as well as a clown, as well as a decades-long student of playwright/author Samuel Beckett. So seeing him in anything is a treat, but seeing him in this very personal piece in which he talks about his love for (and sometimes frustration with) the work of Beckett is a rare delight. Whether or not you're familiar with Beckett (I'd only seen his most famous play, once), On Beckett is a riveting 90 minutes spent with a talented and passionate artist. See it at the Guthrie now through March 24.

Bill Irwin created and performs this piece, which premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in 2018 (and is produced by Octopus Theatricals). He begins the show speaking directly the audience (literally - I was sitting in my front row center subscriber seat in the proscenium theater and he looked me right in the eye on several occasions!). He explains what the evening will be - performances of short pieces by Beckett (both from his prose writing and his plays), interspersed with commentary on what it means to him. And while the absurdist Irish playwright who wrote in French and then translated back to English can be intimidating, Bill Irwin is anything but. He's so charming and disarming, often genuinely reacting to audience reactions, that it's a pleasure to go on this ride with him.

Bill said that he's drawn to Beckett's work, he can't escape it. One of the reasons why is that he writes in a stream of consciousness way that sort of sounds like the voices in our heads. He performs the work so wonderfully, imbuing every syllable with meaning, making it I'm sure much more meaningful than if I were to simply read the words to myself. He also uses his clowning skills to great effect (did Beckett write for clowns? good question.). Each piece is performed as a different character, with different physicality, different voice, different way of wearing clothes. Every movement is deliberate and meaningful, yet feels so organic and right. About halfway through he puts on the baggy pants, then the big shoes, and we get into some serious clowning. 

Bill Irwin (photo by Craig Schwartz)
It's evident that Beckett's language has seeped into Bill's brain, because even as himself he has a unique and amusing way of speaking that sounds a bit Beckettesque. It's so fascinating to listen to him talk about what this works means to him as an actor, and wrestle with the meaning of it. It's reassuring that even he hasn't figured Beckett out, and maybe that's not the point. On Beckett is like a Master Class on acting, art, and life.

Bill performs on a black stage, bare except for two black boxes - one long like a bench, one standing up like a podium. He has a few hidden props that aid in his storytelling. He begins dressed in a simple black suit and white shirt, but adds hats (they must be bowler) and other clown accoutrements as he creates the different characters. The lighting changes between fully lit when speaking as Bill, to dramatic lighting during the performances of the half dozen or so pieces. (Scenic design by Charlie Corcoran, costume consultant Martha Hally, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb.)

Bill Irwin has IBDB and IMDb credits a mile long, but I know him as the Flying Man from two episodes of my favorite show Northern Exposure (recently released for streaming on Amazon Prime). This role must have been written for him, because it so perfectly fits his skills. He plays a circus performer who doesn't speak, not because he can't, he just doesn't. So he communicates only with gestures and facial expressions, and is perfectly understood by Marilyn, who is relatively taciturn herself. It's such a beautiful performance, as the Flying Man wordlessly woos Marilyn, and is heart-broken when she won't leave Cicely to be with him. He conveys everything without a word.

As experienced through Bill Irwin, Samuel Beckett's work is deeply profound and wonderfully silly. I don't think this show will lead me to read any of his work, because that sounds hard, but I definitely want to see more of it on stage. I've only seen his most famous work Waiting for Godot once, at the Jungle Theater in 2012 starring Jim Lichtsheidl and Nathan Keepers, two of my favorite local clowns. I would love to revisit it after seeing On Beckett and having a bit more insight into this "booger of a play."

And that, dear readers, is all I can have had to say about it. Now it's up to you to go see and experience it for yourself.