Few writers are able to capture the imagination through irony, metaphor, and despair as startling or as vividly as Samuel Beckett. His prose has proven as deeply layered and richly textured as a perfectly aged bottle of wine. And much like wine, it is definitely an acquired taste.
Bill Irwin, the indelible character actor’s actor presents On Beckett, playing now at the Kirk Douglas, as a kind of love letter to the great Irish/French/existentialist/playwright by examining Beckett’s writing through the lens of an actor, more specifically, the lens of an actor whose lens is that of a clown.
Taking the dark, questioning, often confounding prose and searching for meaning, motivation, pathos and heart, as a clown, Mr. Irwin does something more than evoke the great author, he invites the audience into a kind of dramaturgy lesson- a lesson in the analyzing and deconstructing of an actor’s process with challenging literature. It’s almost as if he’s teaching a great author’s course for actors, and instead of assigning us, the students, with readings, he reads them for us, and then creates a discussion based on the written words. Part of me wished, about a third of the way through the performance, it would have been an interactive show, where the audience could have gotten involved in the discussion, but I know the slippery slope that audience participation can lead an actor to, so by the last third of the show, I understood why that was not the format.
Mr. Irwin is an absolute delight. His stage presence is effortless, his personality so inviting, and his physical prowess impressive enough that he could have performed without a single line of dialogue, which he does several times, and we would be fully entertained for the entire evening.
What’s most interesting about the show is watching an actor whose most natural state of performing is as a clown, the flappable fool whose missteps always land as a punchline, deliver some of the most dense and bewildering text of the twentieth century. The contrast between a kind of vaudeville comedy and existential prose is quite fascinating, and actually highlights an even richer element of Beckett’s texts than I had ever considered. Most people seem to categorize Beckett somewhere between dark and depressing, to dystopic and foreboding, after all he did say that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” However, I have always believed that there is an inherent hope in his writing. His works are rife with characters who are existing in the most unimaginable circumstances, whether it’s Endgame, where characters are in some kind of post-apocalyptic hell- two of them live in garbage cans for crying out loud, or Happy Days, where the main character is buried up to her waist in scorched earth unable to move, these characters have one thing in common, they still live, and more importantly, they want to live. In the most dire situations, when hope should be lost, they continue living. They look for things to live for. This is not the definition of despair, but I think of hope. And a greater commentary on the human condition, that we will fight to live even when death makes more sense. What Mr. Irwin has cleverly tapped into, I think, is the malleable nature of the language and through a lens of a clown is attempting to reconcile his own hopeful, haunted relationship with it. Watching an actor intellectualize and then embody language that he loves, that has shaped and informed him is truly, genuinely joyful to watch. Even if you don’t walk away with any different ideas or opinions about Beckett or his writing, it is Bill Irwin that will leave the impression. But for those of you who, like me, revel in the complexity and mystery of Samuel Beckett’s language, this is further proof of the glorious power that his words can have on all of us. Through the placement of words, fueled with repetition, dripping with irony, tinged with hope and despair at the same non-clearance, just the placement of words emitting from the mouth of a seasoned performer, is enough to inspire, transport, and transform- proving what the great author himself said, words are all we have.
Conceived and Performed by Bill Irwin
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd. Culver City, CA. 90232