March 23, 2022

Versatile Actor and Clown Bill Irwin Presents “On Beckett” at McCarter; Comedy Explores a Performer’s Relationship to the Playwright’s Works

“ON BECKETT”: McCarter Theatre Center presented “On Beckett” on March 18. Created, directed and performed by Bill Irwin, the show played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above: Irwin considers, among other questions, whether the “Waiting for Godot” playwright’s work is “natural clown territory.” (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning actor, writer, director, and clown Bill Irwin presented On Beckett at McCarter on March 18. The entertaining monologue excerpts passages from the author and playwright’s writings, interspersed with comedy routines and affable, thoughtful commentary. Early in the evening Irwin poses an overarching rhetorical question: “Is Samuel Beckett’s writing natural clown territory?”

On Beckett is the result, and culmination, of Irwin’s extensive experience performing Beckett’s works. He has acted in multiple productions of Waiting for Godot, including the 2009 Broadway production; and he performed in American Conservatory Theater’s 2012 production of Endgame.

“Mine is an actor’s relationship to Beckett’s language; but it’s also a clown’s relationship,” Irwin explains to this writer in an interview for (the March 16 edition of) Town Topics. “I’m hoping to welcome you in, and in doing so, re-welcome myself back in, because I am forever rediscovering this writing — the wit in it.”

On Beckett premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in 2018, following development at ACT. The McCarter presentation is produced by Octopus Theatricals, in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Irwin’s other original stage works include The Regard of Flight, The Happiness Lecture, and Old Hats. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Fool Moon (the latter is created by Irwin and David Shiner). Television credits include Elmo’s World; film credits include Rachel Getting Married and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

On Beckett is by turns wry, slapstick, and profound. Irwin effortlessly and seamlessly transitions from cogently probing themes in the author’s work, to imitating a vaudeville tap dance.

The vaudeville sequence serves to consider the extent to which the types of theater Becket would have seen in his formative years influenced his writing. Irwin observes in his monologue that Beckett’s “family went often to the vaudeville theater … it just feels to me like that’s in there somewhere.”

Three Beckett works are excerpted: Waiting for Godot — which, arguably, forms the monologue’s centerpiece; Watt, a novel; and Texts for Nothing, a collection of stories. Irwin often delivers these passages with a variety of Irish accents.

Beckett (1906-1989) was a playwright, theater director, author, poet, and literary translator. His work often pairs dark comedy with nonsense. He espouses a genre that is termed, by critic Martin Esslin, as the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Irwin bluntly shares mixed feelings about Beckett’s writings. He finds them “full of character energy” but also “abstract and abstruse.” As Irwin moves back and forth on stage, he reveals that he sometimes needs to put the works aside, but then feels compelled to return to them.

In between the recitations and commentary, we are given bits of information and trivia about the playwright. For example, Irwin notes with amusement that Beckett was an Irish author who wrote some of his works (such as Waiting for Godot) in French, then translated them to English. Irwin also remarks that Beckett’s work is steadily becoming more mainstream; he wryly cites as evidence a website which juxtaposes Beckett quotes against photographs of cats.

Scenic designer Charlie Corcoran furnishes the stage with a large, boxlike bench; and a podium, behind which Irwin appears to shrink and grow again. Sound designer M. Florian Staab uses brief electronic musical fragments to demarcate the Beckett excerpts. The vaudeville segment is enhanced by music that would have permeated theaters at the turn of the last century.

Michael Gottlieb’s lighting guides the audience through the monologue’s changes in mood. When Irwin explores the extent to which the baggy pants change his silhouette (and, by extension, his mindset and the way he moves), the lighting distorts his shadow. For the recitation of a passage from Texts for Nothing, illumination is reduced to a spot that focuses our attention on the performer, who sits contemplatively on the bench.

Costume designer Martha Hally outfits Irwin with a varied wardrobe. At one point he wears a graduation cap, at another he dons traditional clown paraphernalia such as baggy pants and a red nose. Elsewhere he sports a suit and bow tie, recalling early to mid-20th century entertainers such as George M. Cohan or Fred Astaire.

Hats are an important part of Irwin’s wardrobe, because they are integral to Waiting for Godot. (Irwin jokes that it likely will become fashionable for current and future productions to use baseball caps, but he prefers to use traditional bowlers.) One of the idiosyncratic plot points of the play is that one of the characters, Lucky, “can’t think without his hat.”

Waiting for Godot depicts two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who have a variety of discussions and experiences while awaiting a character who is interminably mentioned, but never arrives. Estragon and Vladimir encounter another character, Pozzo, and his slave: the ironically named Lucky.

Pozzo holds a rope that binds Lucky, whom he forces to carry his bags, and punishes for being too slow. Irwin soberly suggests that the play, particularly this brutal image, can be interpreted as a “rumination on supremacy.”

At one point Pozzo commands the slave, “Think!” at which point Lucky performs a monologue that is cryptic but perceptibly thematic (particularly the lines about a  “personal God” who “suffers” with “those who for reasons unknown … are plunged in torment”).

Irwin recites Lucky’s speech, giving it a singsong intonation. Rhythmic, side-to-side hand movements accompany the recitation. This delivery heightens the bizarreness of the speech, making it both amusing and eerie.

A distinguishing feature of Irwin’s performance is its physicality. Irwin makes full use of the stage, at one point pretending to play golf (or hockey) using a cane. He also reenacts a scene from Waiting for Godot, in which a character runs to stop a messenger boy from leaving.

Discussing that scene with the audience, Irwin observes: “The stage directions are very clear that the playwright intends for Vladimir almost, but not quite, to reach the boy. What was he going to do if he had managed to grab him? That’s one of the decisions…the actors have to address.” It is a fascinating insight into ways in which an actor must approach a scene.

The Waiting for Godot segment also includes a discussion of opposing viewpoints about the correct pronunciation of “Godot” (concerning which syllable should be stressed); and anecdotes about some of Irwin’s collaborators on various productions, including the late Robin Williams.

Listening to Irwin deliver the passages from Waiting for Godot reminds us that, unlike a novel, a script is written to be heard, and is one component of an art form. Lines that appear “abstract and abstruse” on the printed page sound less so with the addition of vocal inflections.

“Is Samuel Beckett’s writing natural clown territory?” Irwin’s presentation of On Beckett seems to suggest, “Yes, if a performer needs it to be, and chooses to make it so.” Pointedly, Irwin delivers the final segment, a passage from Texts for Nothing, in just his suit; clown attire and markedly showy performance techniques are removed.

Perhaps one could argue that the question Irwin asks is incomplete, because he demonstrates that discussion about Beckett’s writings, and theater in general, can be “clown territory.” On Beckett succeeds because Irwin makes us enjoy visiting that territory.