Existence: Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett”

 

On Beckett 5

Bill Irwin performs a bit of Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

 

Bill Irwin, trained as a clown, is America’s foremost interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s works, despite having performed in only three of them. On Broadway, in Waiting for Godot, he’s portrayed both Lucky (alongside Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and F. Murray Abraham) and Vladimir (opposite Nathan Lane as Estragon and with John Glover and John Goodman), and at ACT he’s performed in Endgame and a dramatization of several of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing. I was able to see both Texts for Nothing and the more recent production of Godot, and they were revelations. Irwin uses his clowning techniques to portray Beckett’s confused, ill-at-ease, physically uncomfortable, restless, never-at-home-in-this-or-any-other-realm everymen with humor, wisdom, and compassion.

He is now at ACT’s Strand Theatre in On Beckett, a short evening that’s part performance, part lecture, and part discussion. It’s a master class in the fullest sense of that term. Irwin humbly tells us that he’s not a scholar and that there’s more that he doesn’t know about Beckett than what he does. He sheepishly confesses to having never been able to get through any of Beckett’s novels, despite having found passages in them that left him amazed and overwhelmed. But he speaks with passion and eloquence about what Beckett’s work means to him as an actor, taking us through the some of the struggles he’s had with the various texts, and sharing the virtues and joys of that process to us in the audience.

It’s a wonderful evening of theatrical enlightenment. Irwin is smart and knowledgeable and conveys his experiences with enthusiasm and insight. You see an actor at the height of his powers, wrestling with one of the most difficult playwrights of the 20th century, but you also see a great teacher. Irwin isn’t lecturing, he’s explaining why this material excites him, why it energizes him as an actor, and why it’s more important and relevant than ever.

He describes the penultimate scene of Godot and how he sees two great choices in Didi’s line to the boy emissary of the never-seen Godot: “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that…that you saw me.” Is Vladimir asking the boy to tell Godot that he exists, that there is a man called Vladimir who is waiting for him? Or is he betraying the sleeping Estragon, asserting his own existence over that of his companion’s?

Irwin discusses Beckett’s carefully (and infamously) proscribed stage directions, as well as the necessary wardrobe. There’s a wonderful examination of the bowler hat, with Irwin deftly demonstrating how the size and angle of it can drastically change how a character comes across, and a demonstration of baggy-pants clowning, drawing the parallels between Irwin’s performing experience and Beckett’s own love of vaudeville and music hall.

Watching Irwin is like being at one of Stella Adler’s great lectures on performing Ibsen, or the scenes from the wonderful Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, where Paul Gross as the artistic director of a Shakespeare company explicates some bit of iambic pentameter and makes it come alive with dramatic possibilities. On Beckett is a portrait of an actor at work, and it makes for a thrilling evening

In the post-show discussion, which is an optional part of every performance, Irwin entertained some smart questions from the audience. Asked about the decision as Vladimir to reach for Estragon’s hand at the end of his most recent Godot, Irwin explained that it had been a difficult tech process, with Lane at one point leaving the stage and announcing he’d be back when everyone had learned their lines. (“Since I was the only other person on the stage, it was clear who he was talking about,” Irwin admitted.) A some later point, the handholding happened organically, and neither the director nor the notoriously protective Beckett estate objected. He talked about another moment when he played Lucky: In Act II, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo accidentally dropped the rope that tethers Lucky to him. Because at this point in the play Pozzo is blind, Abraham couldn’t very well bend down and pick it up. So Irwin’s Lucky picked up the rope and handed it to Pozzo, effectively re-enslaving himself. Director Mike Nichols shouted “I love it!” and it was kept in.

Irwin was visibly thrilled when another member of the audience mentioned that she had seen the original 1953 Parisian production of Godot. She then asked Irwin if we would ever see him perform Krapp’s Last Tape, and a familiar voice shouted “Yes!” from the audience: ACT artistic director Carey Perloff. Irwin said he assumed he would someday but as of yet, it wasn’t a text he felt he understood well enough to do it justice. Here’s hoping that time comes soon.

On Beckett runs through January 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco.

 

It’s Scapin’s world… or is It?

Bill Irwin as Scapin confers with Jud Williford as Sylvestre in ACT's "Scapin." (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Molière’s late farce, Les fourberies de Scapin (The Schemes of Scapin), takes about 45 minutes to read and seems to have taken Molière even less time to write.  Here’s the plot: Two young men, Octave and Leander, have fallen in love with women their fathers will likely disdain.  Leander’s servant, Scapin, enlists the help of Sylvestre, servant to Octave, to trick the miserly patriarchs out of sums of money and into accepting their sons’ romances.  Complications ensue.  Le Misanthrope it ain’t.

Nevertheless, the great clown and actor Bill Irwin adapted (with playwright Mark O’Donnell) this lesser work several years ago, as Scapin, directing and playing the title role in both Seattle and on Broadway.  He brings a new production to the American Conservatory Theatre, employing members of their core company and MFA program in his ensemble.

I’ve seen Irwin on stage several times, twice doing Beckett, and I’m convinced he’s the country’s finest Beckett interpreter.  His 2001 ACT production Texts for Nothing was brilliant, audacious, and incredibly moving.  (I still remember him struggling to find a comfortable place to sleep on the rocky, hostile setting, shifting and turning in an attempt to find rest in a landscape that offered none, rendering the abstractness of Beckett’s words extraordinarily concrete.) His 2009 Broadway performance as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon, remains the best production of Waiting for Godot I’ve seen. Fool Moon, a clowning collaboration with David Shiner, was a sweet example of how audience participation should be done, with respect and without humiliation.  And in his conventional performances, as in the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married, he brings a well-observed humanity to his work. The man is a marvel.

However, Irwin’s clowning skills, wondrous as they are, can lead to self-indulgence.  His Broadway performance in last year’s Bye Bye Birdie was a disaster.  Irwin focused on the clowning and threw character out the window, resulting in a mannered, overwrought mess.  His vocal choices were so affected that he incomprehensibly garbled the first word of his one song.  (The word?  “Kids!”)

His Scapin falls short of the sublime, unfortunately.  There’s much that’s hilarious: the adaptation is free and has no problems making fun of the limitations of the original script; the cast ad libs with abandon; there are anachronistic references to gay marriage, terrorism, and other current events that are often quite funny; and the scenes are peppered with lots of sure-fire theater in-jokes.  (When Scapin is carried on stage, apparently near death, he asks, “Am I center?” He isn’t, and has to be hauled back stage left.)  There are comic Brechtian touches, such as a sign bearing the word “Exposition” extending out of a stage left window when one character gets a little too involved with his back story.

As co-author, director, and lead actor, the piece should be all Irwin’s, and there are times when he’s amazing.  His voice tosses off one-liners, shouting in alarm, mocking and cajoling. The plasticity of his limbs and spine can be astonishing, but he too often seems to be showing off, walking around in cringing postures, scrunching or pulling his face, his feet roaming off in different directions, the movements divorced from both the plot and his characterization.  He stops the show (not in a good way) for these displays of shtick, taking far too long for his entrances and exits. (The play, only an hour and 45 minutes as is, could easily stand to lose another 15-20 minutes.)

Irwin and O’Donnell add two plot elements not in the original, although one, a love interest for Scapin, is borrowed from another Molière work, La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas.  Omozé Idehenre portrays Nerine with great aplomb, intermittently lugging trunks over the stage that no one offers to help her with.  When Scapin become tongue-tied in her presence, he observes, “Molière did not write this part, did he?” and Nerine replies with a stern dignity, “It is among the parts he did not write.”

The other addition is far less successful. For some reason, Irwin and O’Donnell include a chase scene in the finale without any textual or dramatic reason. Scapin simply decides to bolt.  It goes on and on as everyone trots around the stage at the same tempo with no real urgency.  It’s neither fast enough nor funny enough, another lapse in judgment that ought to have been cut.

The show does feature one spectacular performance, one seamless integration of acting and clowning that never devolves into self-indulgence, that hits the right tone throughout.  Jud Williford as Sylvestre has a beefy body and long face with a prominent chin and forehead, and he ‘s the best second banana ever. Williford is relentlessly inventive without ever breaking character or overshadowing the text, the production, or his fellow actors.  Eager to help and easily flattered, his Sylvestre looks on with energetic interest, his mouth usually open as if all this idiocy was brand new to him. He possesses a sweet, winning bashfulness.  When Scapin tries to sweet talk him into helping with a scheme, he asks, “Do you have a theater arts background?” (a damn funny line all on its own), and Sylvestre replies with an embarrassed pleasure, “Well, I did a little acting back in servitude school.” In another scene, he channels bits of Taxi Driver (Williford molding his rubbery face into a passable DeNiro), Midnight Cowboy, and Dirty Dancing, and at the end of this tour de force, he looks to Scapin for affirmation that he’s done well.  In another sequence, Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant to Octave, relating Octave’s own story to him while Sylvestre mimes and charades the details behind Octave’s back.  It’s the evening’s high point: Irwin’s timing is perfect and Williford’s imagination knows no bounds.

Gregory Wallace as Octave tries out several things in his depiction, with little consistency and less success.  When describing his first meeting with his beloved Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett), he goes gay, describing the dress she wore and cooing over how adorable it was.  But since Octave isn’t gay, the moment makes no sense.  His voice is deep and tough-sounding at first (almost Brooklynesque in its accent) but this too goes by the wayside. At other moments, he just seems to be standing on stage, making no attempts at acting at all.  (Beaver Bauer’s costuming, otherwise fun and appropriate, fails here as well.  Octave wears huge thigh-high boots with a flare at the top, and an epauletted jacket with huge shoulders that comes down just above the hips, leaving his mid-section, garbed in tight, striped trousers, exposed and vulnerable.  If Wallace were to use this somehow, to make some choices consistent with his costume, it could be funny.  But as it is, he looks rather embarrassed.)

As Leander, Patrick Lane is better simply because he understands there isn’t much to the part.  He’s the young swain immersed in love and unconscious to the rest of the world unless it threatens to interfere.  Thankfully, René Augesen plays his paramour, Zerbinette with a worldly mirth that energizes the entire stage. Zerbinette takes her pleasure where she can, laughing at fools and delighted to find there’s such a large supply.  Despite the ridiculousness of her own name, she revels in getting Hyacinth’s wrong, hurling out whatever H-word comes to mind, including  “Hydrangea” and “Hyperbole.” Insisting that Leander marry her if he wants to continue the affair, she announces “Surprise! I’m a virgin!” and gets a huge laugh.  Steven Anthony Jones and Geoff Hoyle (a fellow Pickle Family Circus alum along with Irwin) are also both quite funny as the hapless heads of family.

But Williford is Scapin’s ultimate winner. He shines without overshadowing and triumphs without conquering.  He’s a supporting and supportive actor, the very best kind.  With his easy masculinity, he’s also, despite all the foolery, slightly sexy.  It’s a shame he wasn’t provided with his own love interest.

Irwin’s name is all over the marquee, and he’s an undeniable talent, but by evening‘s end, the show is Williford’s.

Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) listens as Geronte (Geoff Hoyle) pontificates. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Scapin plays from now until October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street,
 San Francisco, CA, 94102.  For more information, call 415-749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org.