October 13, 2018

Why "On Beckett" is the Best Show in Town

Bill Irwin is a genius. And it’s not just me saying that. The folks at the MacArthur Foundation made that official 34 years ago when they gave him one of their famous five-year fellowships that have become known as genius grants. 

And Irwin has also shown that he’s theatrically ambidextrous by winning Tonys for his clown show Fool Moon (he got his graduate degree from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College) and for his wrenching portrayal of George in the 2005 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

Yet even with all that, I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to On Beckett, Irwin’s tribute to the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett that is playing at the Irish Rep through Nov. 4. So I’m relieved—and grateful—to say I was wrong. And if you’re hesitating, you should put your worries aside and go. 

Irwin won me over within the first five minutes with his deep knowledge of Beckett’s work. He’s appeared in several productions of Waiting for Godot, including as Lucky in the legendary 1988 revival directed by Mike Nichols and starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon in 2009. And then there's this show's motivating desire to share his passion with the rest of us (click here to read more about the show’s origins).

Irwin, who not only conceived the show but impressively directed himself in it, acknowledges that Beckett’s non-linear language, bleak outlook and pitch-black humor can be tough sledding. But for 80 minutes, he makes us almost believe that we can plumb the depths of Beckett’s recondite musings.

Donning a series of the bowler hats that have become a trademark for Godot (and yes he gets into the debate over whether it should be pronounced Guh-do or God-o; click here to read about our continuing fascination with this absurdist classic), Irwin slips back and forth between baggy-pants antics and existential angst as he explores Beckett's texts. 

At 68, his body is still loose-limbed enough to do audience-pleasing but still relevant clowning tricks. And his voice is equally supple, massaging Beckett’s words into lyrical incantations.

It’s a master class in acting and as apt an encapsulation of Beckett’s mind as you’re likely to find outside a college classroom. Only it’s far, far more enjoyable. If you're a theater lover, you shouldn't miss it.

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