Chief New York Theatre Critic
Outer Critics Circle / Drama Desk Member
“On Beckett,” currently playing at Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, is part performance, part graduate school lecture (with perambulation), part predilections on whether Samuel Beckett’s writing is “natural clown territory,” and part perusal of the importance of culture and language – all presented with perfection and seemingly unbridled passion by Bill Irwin. During Mr. Irwin’s introduction, it becomes clear the audience is about to experience something out of the ordinary, and when Mr. Irwin completes “a final passage of Beckett, after which the lights will go out, and the evening will be done,” experience one of the most profound experiments to be conducted on an off-Broadway stage.
“On Beckett” incudes readings and performances from Beckett’s 1950 series of thirteen short prose pieces to which Beckett “gave that odd title “Texts for Nothing,” from an early Beckett novel “Watt,” and selections from one of Samuel Beckett’s two greatest plays “Waiting for Godot.” Vladimir and Estragon and Pozzo and Lucky emerge from the iconic play in ways that are refreshing and equally disturbing. Lucky’s “nonsense speech” has never been more provocative, more pain-filled, more relevant.
Beckett asks, “where does violence sit in the human equation” in the excerpt from “Watt.” The speaker rehearses “the whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps” the speaker’s week proffers. These “ascending levels of violence” rattle from Bill Irwin’s soul during his reading of Beckett’s text. The same passion pervades Mr. Irwin’s performance of the excerpts from “Waiting for Godot” (with an appearance of Finn O’Sullivan as “Boy).
Mr. Irwin teases the text, teases the audience’s perception of “existence,” and challenges his own ability to extract himself from the power Samuel Beckett’s writing has had over him. He admits, “This language haunts me, it will not let me alone.” After ninety minutes with Bill Irwin and his “On Beckett,” the audience is reminded of the enormous skill of the actor and the haunting allure of Beckett’s “deep” writing.
“On Beckett” is about Bill Irwin’s process and the metacognition involved in that creative process as he shares the push-pull relationship he has with existentialism’s bard. This is a performance needed to be seen, to be ingested, to be struggled with. Samuel Beckett echoes and hauntingly precedes (philosophically) William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot. This reviewer could not escape “watching” the aging J. Alfred Prufrock, the “bottoms of his trousers rolled” lingering “till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
Or perhaps, as the speaker in “Texts for Nothing, Text #9 opines, “There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come, the other words, sooner or later, and the power to get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the beauties of the skies, and see the stars again.” Vladimir’s question remains: “Was I sleeping while the others suffered?” Was he? Were we? Are we?
The cast of “On Beckett” includes Bill Irwin and Finn O’Sullivan.
The creative team for “On Beckett” includes set designer Charlie Corcoran, costume consultant Martha Tally, lighting designer Michael Gottlieb, and sound designer M. Florian Staab. Christine Lemme serves as production stage manager.
“On Beckett” runs at Irish Rep Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage (132 West 22nd Street) through Sunday November 4, 2018. For further information, including performance schedule and ticket pricing, visit https://primarystages.org/. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
Photo: Bill Irwin in “On Beckett.” Credit: Carol Rosegg.