Review: Quintessential Clown Bill Irwin ON BECKETT Showcases the Humor and Pathos of the Irish Playwright
Bill Irwin is a Tony-winning actor, director, writer and long-time clown who was an original member of the Pickle Family Circus, formed in San Francisco in 1974. Before he left the group in 1979, I was fortunate enough to see him perform in several of their outdoor shows in the Bay Area and always marveled as the three clowns' ability to keep the audience engaged throughout the shows, which always ended in a big super juggling roundabout.
So it did not surprise me at all that the talented Mr. Irwin utilized his wonderful comedic skills, including his oversized clown shoes which he claims are "older than any of our matinee patrons" to bring the essence of Samuel Beckett's Irish humor, pathos and personality to the stage in ON BECKETT at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through October 27, 2019. This production, conceived and performed by Irwin, premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City in October 2018.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is widely recognized as one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century, one whom Bill Irwin claims will live on for as long as theaters around the world keep audiences entertained. Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 "for his writing, which - in new forms for the novel and drama - in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation." Born in Dublin where he learned what the daily grind of life could do to a man with no hope, Beckett spent most of his adult life in Paris, wrote most of his work in French, and played an active role in the French Revolution during World War II. Perhaps most renowned for his play "Waiting for Godot" which launched his career in theatre, Beckett's works capture the pathos and ironies of modern life yet still maintain his faith in man's capacity for compassion and survival, no matter the circumstances in their lives.
Bill Irwin is haunted by the work of Samuel Beckett, language he learned over years as a performer in several of his plays, most notably "Waiting for Godot" which he now finds himself considering and reconsidering on whether or not the characters who wait for something that will never happen is well suited to the clown antics he so brilliantly brings to the stage. In this intimate 90-minute engaging, funny and illuminating evening, Irwin explored his own personal "actor's relationship" to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish writer, mining the physical and verbal talents acquired from his years as a master clown and Tony Award-winning actor, keeping the audience's rapt attention from start to finish.
Irwin's approach to the comic, the tragic, to every side of Beckett's work from his plays to his prose, offers the audience an opportunity to experience Beckett's language through the lens of a uniquely skilled performer who feels and expresses its Irish essence to the core. For while I have seen and been on the production team of "Waiting for Godot" myself, Irwin's ability to inhabit all four of the men in the play at a comedic level I had never considered before opened my eyes to a new framework from which to consider the many ways in which human beings can live out their lives when the only real thing we can truly expect is for it to end. What's the point? Then again, why not enjoy it? Then again, why?
I must admit I was not familiar with Beckett's 1950 ("the year I was born," Irwin announced) "Texts For Nothing" collection of 13 short prose pieces before watching Irwin transform three of the sometimes evasive-at-first-hearing content into interesting expressions of the meaning of life. Or was that the insignificance of life? But that is the whole point of Beckett's well-known existentialism - what is the meaning of life and why does it matter? Perhaps one of the best quotes which personifies Beckett's writing style to me comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "Out, out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
While I find Beckett's plays often too intensely intellectual for my comprehension, this was not the case with Irwin's seemingly effortless way of donning a bowler hat (or 2 or 3), juggling them until the perfect one is atop his head, and then going on to flop around the stage in his baggy pants and oversize shoes as a quintessential clown while explaining his interpretation of passages reflecting "the noise of life" in Beckett's "Text for Noting," "Watt," "Waiting for Godot," "Endgame," and "The Unnamable." It was an extraordinary evening of watching a master of the stage interpret the life and brilliance of a theatre legend.
The creative team features scenic design by Charlie Corcoran, costume consultant Martha Hally, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb and sound design by M. Florian Staab. The production stage manager is Lora K. Powell. The role of the Boy in "Waiting for Godot" is performed in rotating repertory by Carl Barber and Benjamin Taylor, both students at Culver City schools.
Tickets for "On Beckett" are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling (213) 628-2772, or at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance, ranging from $30-$75.The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Free three hour covered parking at City Hall with validation (available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby).
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz