Who's afraid of Samuel Beckett?
by Roberto Friedman
Bill Irwin knows that we are blessed to live in a world that was graced by the great Irish poet, dramatist and novelist Samuel Beckett. His show On Beckett, at ACT's Strand Theater through Jan. 22, is Irwin making his case, after a lifetime of living with Beckett's works, for the sublimity of his oeuvre.
A master clown, a founder of SF's Pickle Family Circus , a Tony Award-winning actor, star of stage and screen, a MacArthur, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellow, Irwin delivered an entertaining and elucidating evening that was one part lecture, two parts performance, as he acted out passages from Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Texts for Nothing leavened with plenty of commentary and clarifying detail. He said his goal in creating the piece was to "find the actor's connection, to make a 'talking language'" of the texts he excerpted. It was his foray onto the "mysterious continent" of Beckett-land, and the audience was happy to be along for the trek.
Although Beckett's theatre of the absurd could be considered heady stuff, an investigation into the endless arguments going on within our minds, and although it is redolent of literature, an "allusive voice" that echoes great works, Irwin made the best possible case for the Nobel Laureate as a "writer of the body." He has found the place where his expertise in clowning intersects with the abstract, sometimes abstruse texts. Both demo & emo, he showed how the wearing of a bowler hat or baggy pants inflects a performance, informs Beckett's enigmatic characters. He called Godot, Beckett's most famous work, "metaphysical vaudeville." And as a finale of sorts, he presented Text for Nothing #11 in what he termed "full clown" mode. It was full wow.
Beckettian monologues have entered the popular culture, much as Shakespearean script has. Is there any better encapsulation of despair, depression, the inherent irony of the human condition than the last three sentences of Beckett's last novel, The Unnamable?
"You must go on.
"I can't go on.
"I'll go on."
As Irwin observed, like all the greats, Beckett has already entered the collective subconscious, and more will be revealed. As if to confirm the observation, the very next morning in The New York Times, columnist Gail Collins described the p.e. Trump press conference, itself theatre of the absurd, with the report, "He'll release his taxes once the audit is finished. (You remember that audit. Its friends call it Godot.)"
In a Q&A after the performance, Irwin told us part of the fascination for him in continuing to do the piece is to investigate "where the audience ends, and the performer begins." In this case, he had the Strand audience right in the palm of his clown hands.
Through Jan. 22 at the Strand Theater. Tickets ($30-$70): (415) 749-2228 or at act-sf.org.