Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin has an invigorating show at The Strand. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Bill Irwin clowns around in ‘On Beckett’

If only all university lectures could be as enlightening, as engrossing as Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett,” an almost-solo show in a short run at American Conservatory Theater.

Irwin, a beloved actor (regional theater, Broadway, film, TV) and clown whose roots go back to the Bay Area’s seminal Pickle Family Circus, makes no claims to be a Samuel Beckett scholar; he says he’s never read the acclaimed author-playwright’s trilogy of novels cover to cover. (Beckett wrote them in English, whereas he wrote his famous plays in French, then translated them himself.)

Nevertheless, one of the preoccupations of Irwin’s artistic life has been to better understand, and better perform, the master’s brilliant, allusive (and often elusive) work.

And he did meet Beckett, once, briefly and unforgettably, in Paris; Irwin was in his 20s (he’s 66 now), preparing to play the hapless Lucky in “Waiting for Godot.”

Casual and unpretentious in a suit and bow tie, Irwin addresses the audience directly, and discusses that cherished visit with Beckett — Beckett was shy, Irwin was shy — and much more, including the ongoing difficulties, for actors, in parsing and performing the writer’s text.

And he illustrates his commentary — which, as befits an actor, is analytic but always entertaining, never pedantic — by performing short passages from Beckett: a scene in Act 1 of “Waiting for Godot”; bits from “Texts for Nothing” (which comprises 13 short prose pieces) and the novel “Watt”; a scene between the blind Hamm and his underling Clov in “Endgame” with an ACT student stepping in as Clov; and about a third of Lucky’s seemingly nonsensical three-page speech in “Godot.”

Along the way he changes clothes, slipping into assorted baggy pants with suspenders, shabby, oversized jackets and floppy clown shoes, topped off with a whole series of bowler hats. “Beckett was famously specific about headwear,” he notes, demonstrating in body language just how the chapeau makes the man.

As a respite in the middle of the 70-minute show, he breaks into a welcome little song-and-dance soft shoe number.

Irwin proves just how exquisitely Beckett’s oddball characters, with their poetically rhythmic, existential musings, suit the physical artistry of the actor-clown.

Beckett’s writing is challenging, to say the least, but “On Beckett” goes a long way toward illuminating it, mining every bit for the ever-present comedy and pathos without ever losing sight of Beckett’s big, unanswerable questions.

REVIEW
On Beckett
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes Jan. 22
Tickets: $30 to $70
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

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