Bill Irwin will repeatedly tell you he’s not a scholar of Samuel Beckett, but audiences might disagree. In his current play “On Beckett,” the actor/clown/comedian doesn’t just instruct the audience about the Irish author, but takes them on a theatrical journey through his life and works. He does this all with the aid of a minimal set, bowler hats, and the use of his psychics-defying frame. Currently on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theater through Oct. 27, “On Beckett” earned raves upon its premiere in New York last year.
Audiences who have seen Irwin live or in his work as Mr. Noodle on “Sesame Street” already know that Irwin’s body is its own special effect; a graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and a member of the Pickle Family Circus since its early years, Irwin might be the best known clown outside of Pennywise. (Though important to note, his clowning is not the kind that might inspire coulrophobia – no wigs or face paint here.) Other might know him from his Tony Award-winning performance in 2005’s “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or for his acclaimed turns in such projects as FX’s “Legion” and films like “Rachel Getting Married.”
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For those worried they will find Beckett, author of plays like “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot” too inaccessible, Irwin feels your pain. “His works are kind of hard,” he admits. “He was the quintessential go-it-your-own-way-f–k-the-world-I’m-going-to-keep-doing-the-work-I-need-to-do writer. He wasn’t a writer for everyone; and I think that’s a good thing.”
However, Irwin hopes this show might solve some of the mystery. “I hope it’s a way in for people who don’t know much about him, but also entertaining for those who do,” he notes. “That’s part of my mission.”
Irwin himself admits that he when he first read Beckett, “it wasn’t love at first sight.” At CalArts, he was a student of Ruby Cohn, a personal friend of Beckett’s where he first became familiar with the plays. But it didn’t really click until the 1980s, when theater director Joseph Chaikin, asked Irwin to perform Beckett’s short prose pieces “Texts for Nothing.” Until then, Irwin had never even heard of the pieces. “That’s strange, as they’re such a huge part of my life now,” he muses of the 13 untitled pieces. “It’s kind of mysterious where they fit in his work and in people’s estimation.” Excerpts from the texts are performed in “On Beckett,” and the author’s words are beautifully supplemented by Irwin’s performance. Notes Irwin, “Some scholars consider them lesser pieces. But in many ways, I love them more than anything.”
In fact, the texts are the one thing he wishes he had asked Beckett about when he met him, in 1988. It was a brief encounter, lasting about 15 minutes, and Irwin was intimidated. “I couldn’t look at his face,” he admits. “I remember looking down and staring at his hands, he had these gnarled hands. I later learned he loved to play the piano.” Irwin regrets that he “squandered” his time, “If I talked to him now, I’d have better questions, a better grasp of his work.” At the end of their meeting, Beckett simply said, “I’ll leave you now.” A year later, he passed away at the age of 83.
Irwin has appeared in “Waiting for Godot,” usually to great acclaim. There was a famously panned 1988 production starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams and directed by Mike Nichols. Before the reviews came out, Irwin recalls standing in the wings with F. Murray Abraham and listening to the laughter, thinking, “This is a rave!”
“After the reviews, it was never the same again,” Irwin notes. Rare video from this show makes its way into “On Beckett,” but Irwin says he actually had to pull back on talking too much about it. “In earlier iterations, I would allow myself to get off on a jag, particularly in defending Robin Williams. People would say he was improvising and not sticking to the text. In fact, the only time he improvised were in the sections where the stage directions said: ‘General outcry.’” Ultimately, Irwin says he’s realized “this play carries so much baggage, you can never do it the way everyone thinks it should be done.”
Nowadays, Irwin doesn’t like to hear about reviews until after the show has closed, not even the good ones. “It can take away a favorite part of the show by praising it or feeling like it was misunderstood,” he says. “The idea is just to protect myself during the process. I often read them after the show has wrapped.” He laughs and admits, “Honestly, sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh shoot, I wish I had thought of that!’”
And while “On Beckett” earned raves in its New York run, Irwin didn’t create the show to please them. “I’m not sure why I embarked on this,” he admits. “I simply had no choice.”
“On Beckett” runs through Oct. 27 at the Kirk Douglas Theater. For information and tickets, visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.