I was fortunate in being able to witness “ON BECKETT” Exploring the works of SAMUEL BECKETT, conceived and performed by BILL IRWIN, at the IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE,132 West 22nd St. Manhattan, New York, playing through November 4th. At present, Sold Out, but do call (212-727-2737) cause: “Ya never know, yaknow? I know!”- Avery Schreiber.
When Eleanor Roosevelt witnessed the legendary actor, Paul Muni star in a revival of Elmer Rice’s 1931 play, “Counsellor at Law” in our nation’s capitol when we were at war with the Axis powers, she went backstage as the esteemed First Lady, and congratulated the venerated player with a measure of regret as to how the Emperor of Japan is able to proclaim certain artists as ‘National Treasures’, and that she wished that upon such an occasion, she could proclaim Mr. Muni , just that: A National Treasure!
This circuitous route of theatrical lore is meant to convey this reviewer’s dismay that our nation collectively has yet to declare BILL IRWIN a national treasure. However, the fact that he’s been the recipient of the MacArthur (“Genius”) Grant, as well as the Guggenheim, Fulbright, and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, as well as multiple Tony Awards for acting and creating his unique theatrical contributions, I believe he does not feel entirely neglected of recognition.
What all of this mentioned heft of attention allows is bringing to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Mainstage Irwin’s highly responsible foray into the works of one of Ireland’s most exalted contributors to the world stages, and the world of literature at large, for which that writer was the recipient of the Noble Prize for Literature: SAMUEL BECKETT. Exalted? Yes Elusive? Perhaps more so!
Irwin has appeared over three decades in some six productions of Beckett’s most celebrated stage work:”Waiting For Godot”, as different characters in different productions of the play. His Lucky in the Mike Nichols’ production of three decades ago with Steve Martin, Robin Williams, F. Murray Abraham, and Lukas Haas was received with accolades ,and his Vladimir to Nathan Lane’s Estragon in Roundabout’s 2009 revival earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination. In addition he’s appeared in “Endgame”, the next best known full length play of the Irishman who chose to first write his texts in French. Beckett’s, “Texts for Nothing”, has also served Irwin’s thirst for partaking and sharing Beckett’s flow of sonic information and he does so three times in the course of this 87 minute excursion with these texts numbering # 1,# 9, and# 11. Of these offerings, this reviewer had been previously unaware. Being unaware is peculiarly appropriate as an auditor for the words of this writer for whom obscurity and depth seem at times suitably interchangeable, yet when uttered with precision and ardor, as does Mr. Irwin, they may become revelatory.
This “proudly admitted” clown presents the evening’s journey as a personal collection of favorite texts he has come to absorb over the course of his life and career so that they never leave him. So much so, he feels compelled to impart to any willing listener whatever he’s able to voice and display of the Irish master.Irwin’s engaging personality and honest humility with his seemingly effortless physical skills in eliciting laughter, proud clown that he is, serves as a secure foundation to take the audience on a safe journey through an often fearful linguistic terrain.
Irwin maintains the audience’s delighted attention with occasional superb comic interpolations narrates as himself his discoveries of portraying the varied characters in varied productions, even to the point of dealing with such controversies as to how, in English, one should pronounce the title of the Irishman’s monumental play, which is considered by many scholars and professionals on the stages of the world to be merely the greatest play of the 20th century. Whether the emphasis of the name of the entity for whom Didi ( Vladimir) and Gogo ( Estragon) are perpetually waiting is on the last syllable or first, is apparently one of considerable contention. Indeed, Irwin explains his own evolution of perspective regarding this, as well as his deepening appreciation of what the play has to offer all who attend, where as Mr. Nichols observed, as have many, “nothing happens, and everything happens.”
Last spring I had the privilege of attending a production of this play at my alma mater, THE JUILLIARD SCHOOL-DRAMA DIVISION. It featured exceedingly talented and already formidably skilled players about to graduate who had the singular good fortune of being meticulously directed by yet another genius of the theater and of physicality in particular, the legendary, MONI YAKIM. He alone, of the original members of the division’s faculty is still teaching and directing there now after 50 years of inspiring all with whom he comes in contact. That production last May which ran , I believe but for 6 performances, was without question the most moving, entertaining, and above all, lucid presentation of this work I’d ever experienced. The evening I attended,”On Beckett”, Mr. Yakim was my guest to witness it. He had, of course, his own, finely attuned impressions of the overall offering, yet has been an admirer of Irwin’s career for decades and indeed recognizes him as a colleague at Juilliard, where on occasion Irwin offers his own master classes. You can imagine my special delight, when after the show, Mr. Irwin graciously accepted us to his dressing room, and was duly impressed by the person I had brought back with me. I could have sworn that the lights in the room suddenly increased in wattage. Do attend this brilliance at the Irish Repertory if you possibly can.
For more information see the Irish Rep website