Seeing Beckett through a clown's eyes

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“On Beckett” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

Think of something you love. Something you’re really passionate about; something that, at least in your mind, can either be done right or really wrong. Maybe it’s a sport? Or a recipe? Or maybe even a kiss.

When that thing’s good, it feeds your soul. When it’s bad … well, sometimes you’d rather just skip it.

That’s how a lot of theater folks, myself included, feel about Samuel Beckett. There’s a reverence, a personal prejudice that, for me, divides Beckett productions into those done right and those that miss the boat. Beckett’s words are a proving ground, a theatrical obstacle course so demanding that it cleaves the acceptable from the intolerable.

So I’m always a little nervous going to see Beckett. I know that I’ll either leave the theatre ecstatic (in a sort of Beckettian existential crisis sort of way) or completely deflated - not by Beckett but by the poor actor who didn’t measure up.

Bill Irwin points to this exact dilemma in his one man show “On Beckett” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Mr. Irwin understands how Beckett plays on an audience. He gets how it divides us and he’s going to take care of us.

He also gets how Beckett’s words *work* on an actor and he’d like to talk about that. He’d like to welcome us into his process, really almost his mind, when he’s working on Beckett’s words.

The show, which includes him performing a series of passages from Beckett’s plays and writing, is really more of a lecture/demonstration. While that sounds pedantic and perhaps off putting, imagine a terribly charismatic professor with a clown nose. (Okay, he doesn’t literally have the clown nose but he’s got the baggy pants and oversized shoes.)

The 90 minute evening, as he lays it out to the audience, will bounce between him performing a passage from Beckett and then him sharing his thoughts, his convictions, his questions on what makes Beckett so compelling and so difficult.

Again, this sounds dry but from the first words of Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing” - the audience is transported. Mr. Irwin is, yes, a clown. But he’s not a sloppy clown. He’s a virtuosically articulate clown who works with precision. All of those gifts, he brings to the words.

The challenge with Beckett is there is so much in tight spaces. His language contains volumes that demand to be unpacked and differentiated by the actor. For me, badly performed Beckett is all a messy jumble - like a bad kiss. The words might be there but the world is flat and meaningless. In the mouth, and mind, of a gifted actor - Beckett’s words open up the varied terrain of the mind. There are switchbacks and gulleys and momentary vistas - and doubt, so much doubt.

Mr. Irwin captures all of this and more. And then, with a generous spirit, he returns to his world, our world, and tells us how and more importantly ...why Beckett matters.

The rhythm of the evening has him transitioning between little monologues where we dive deep into Beckett’s world and then return to Mr. Irwin sharing his own world. Again, given those baggy pants he dons midway through the show to explain Beckett, Mr. Irwin can’t help but trot out a clown bit or two. For a lesser artist they’d feel like comic filler but they are so charming and so good - the audience welcomes the diversion.

And they are part of Mr. Irwin’s larger project. He’s teaching an audience, through example, how to decode both Beckett’s oral language and his precise physical language.

While the evening is called “On Beckett,” you’ll walk out of theater feeling like you know Bill Irwin. You’ll see, in snippets, Samuel Beckett through Irwin’s eyes and you’ll marvel at how this clown reveals entire worlds so quickly with such generous precision.

“On Beckett” plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through October 27th.