The veteran clown, stalwart A.C.T. collaborator, and perpetually boyish 66-year-old Bill Irwin is back with an almost-one-man show at The Strand theater that pays homage to his career-long appreciation for the Nobel-winning Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett.
At roughly 70 minutes — although, owing to a bit of audience engagement, the overall length varies from night to night — On Beckett reveals Irwin’s abiding love for the notoriously complicated literary figure. The sonorous Irwin is always a charismatic performer, and has a knack for seamlessly weaving improvisation and variation into a performance to make any new bits feel like they were there all along. But considering the density of the source material, this show is a little hard to follow, with precious few pauses to let what was just uttered sink in. How much one gets out of it is probably directly proportional to how familiar one already is with Samuel Beckett.
Beckett (1906-1989) is most famous for two plays, Endgame and Waiting for Godot, but he wrote a number of novels as well as 13 hard-to-classify pieces called Texts for Nothing, which form the crux of Irwin’s show. By acting out speeches from Godot or quoting long passages of the Texts — usually in the guise of a comic Irishman or as Irwin’s more typical clown persona — Irwin wants to share an actor’s appreciation of this erudite, at times almost impenetrable, writer. (He is not a Beckett scholar, admitting he hasn’t even read the novels all the way through.)
He’s up front about the difficulty of the task he’s assigned himself. In a preamble to the body of the work, Irwin talks about how Beckett went “viral” in his own head, and how he wants to “pass on the infection,” although he allows that “you will never pierce the deep meaning and resolve the contradictions.” He’s mostly interested in one quality, citing A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff’s claim that Beckett is a “writer of the body.”
That makes him a “big clown portal,” in Irwin’s words. And indeed, the kineticism he draws out of the mother texts is rife with dramatic ironies. But after listening to two or three allusive (and elusive) block quotes, one finds oneself wishing the pace would slow down, or that Irwin would tell more war stories about the various Beckett productions he’s been in (playing opposite Nathan Lane or Robin Williams). He got to meet Beckett once, when he was young enough to be “callow” about it. They talked Irish politics, and he noticed how the playwright’s hands were gnarled with arthritis.
Instead of elaborating on that wonderful encounter, we get Irwin producing a bowler hat to play a “comic Irishman,” a stereotype that’s long since had all the malice sanded off it, to little effect. (His Irish accent is truly terrible; he can’t even hold onto it for a sentence without slipping out.) Exegesis on the concept of a hat as a head, a kind of visual metonymy, and a comparison between the last lines of a Beckett text and the last lines of Dante’s Inferno — these things are what hold people’s attention. (A stage veteran philosophizing about theater? Yes, please.) But suddenly, he’s putting on some oversize pants and an even sillier hat and dashing off to the next segment. If this is metaphysical vaudeville, as Irwin says, something about the ratios is off.
For however arresting it is to watch Bill Irwin pull tricks on stage, Samuel Beckett remains as hermetically sealed against the world as ever. If Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot to appear, we’re waiting for him. Or, as Irwin quotes his hero in Endgame: “I was never there. Absent, always.”
On Beckett, through Jan. 22, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org.