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‘On Beckett’ Review: Bill Irwin’s Play Is a Captivating Theatrical Lecture

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On Oct. 26, following a successful run in New York, the Emerson Paramount Center welcomed the Tony-Award winning actor, clown, and comedian Bill Irwin and his show “On Beckett.” The expectations for the show, which was originally developed at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, were high: Its New York run had been met with raving reviews and celebrated as “captivating…radiant, living theater” by the New York Times. But Bill Irwin did not disappoint, delivering a refreshing and deeply personal reflection on Samuel Beckett’s life and work with just the right amount of comic relief.

“On Beckett,” an original play, entirely written and performed by Bill Irwin, explored Irwin’s own relationship with Samuel Beckett's work as a performer. The show offered a fresh perspective on the Irish dramatist’s plays, by exploring the beauty and the challenges of Beckett’s writing — famous for its thought-provoking and at times frustrating nature — and invites the audience to do the same.

“On Beckett” is not your typical one-man show, but rather a somewhat chaotic collage of Beckett’s work, alternating passages from some of the writer’s most famous works — including “Watt,” “Waiting For Godot,” and “Texts For Nothing” — with commentary based on his personal thoughts, questions, and revelations. The mix proves surprisingly successful.

In “On Beckett” Bill Irwin reminds audiences what great theater acting should look like. Irwin is the kind of actor who has total control over his own voice and body. He approaches each scene with profound emotional realness, embodying various characters and roles authentically through precise vocal work and bodily agility. With breathtaking speed, Irwin jumps between his two different roles: Actor and commentator. Throughout the show, he elegantly put each scene into context by offering extensive background information on Samuel Beckett and his work. It didn’t matter if one was an avid Beckett fan or someone entirely new to the writer’s plays: Irwin extended a powerful invitation to engage with Beckett’s work to each and everyone, successfully taking his audience on an exhilarating intellectual journey.

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It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what “On Beckett” is — it is not a play, it is not standup, and it is not improvisation. Perhaps the most apt description would be it is the best theater lecture to date.

But make no mistake. Bill Irwin is no lecturer; He is an entertainer. “On Beckett,” is one of the few shows that flourished in its staging as a one-man show precisely because of Irwin’s natural talent as a performer. His nuanced performance was perfectly complemented by a limited set and minimalistic lighting design, letting him fill every inch of the stage with his imagination.

Irwin carefully draws the audience into a lively and vivid discussion. He connected the 20th century plays with some of today’s most important social challenges, yet never failed to leave room for disagreement, and criticism. Bill Irwin beautifully acknowledged that even the greatest actors sometimes cannot make sense of great writing. There was something highly resonant, relatable, and refreshing in Irwin’s humility and willingness to openly explore his own uncertainties on stage.

“On Beckett” never ceased to be refreshing despite — or perhaps because of — the unexpected lack of a traditional intermission. “Samuel Beckett’s writing is natural clown territory,” Irwin said. He clearly took advantage of this, creating his own intermissions that skillfully contrasted serious theater and profound commentary with light-hearted play.

The idea that Ireland’s most famous playwright might pair well with red clown noses might sound strange, but it worked, serving not only as comic relief but also giving the audience a new avenue to explore Beckett’s writing. Granted, at times it was puzzling to see Irwin change into his clown gear, and as he launched into vaudeville show numbers, the audience admittedly found itself torn between two different worlds. But it was precisely this dichotomy that kept the audience engaged throughout the show.

After 90 minutes, the lights on stage started to dim. Bill Irwin looked at the audience one last time before saying his final line: “This is all I have to say tonight, “ skillfully leaving the audience wanting more — more “On Beckett” and more Bill Irwin.

—Staff writer Amelie Julicher can be reached at amelie.julicher@thecrimson.com

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