Review: ‘On Beckett’ at A.C.T. (*****)

Bill Irwin performs a portion of the famous “think” speech from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as part of his theatrical lecture, “On Beckett.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

by Charles Kruger

Can a lecture qualify as a theatrical performance? Listen: If Bill Irwin is the performer, unwrapping a piece of chewing gum could win him a Tony (and it wouldn’t be his first). A brilliant clown who was one of the founding members of San Francisco’s famed “Pickle Family Circus,” he has also had a distinguished acting career in drama and comedy. By any measure, Irwin is a theatrical giant. He is also one of the world’s leading actors in the notoriously difficult repertoire of Samuel Beckett, whose odd, disturbing, funny, and dazzling plays inspired critic Martin Esslin to create the term “theatre of the absurd.”

Any performance by Irwin is a treat, especially if he is performing Samuel Beckett.

In “On Beckett”, Irwin lectures charmingly and with great insight on Beckett’s literary output, including stories and novels as well as the plays. His knowledge is encyclopedic and his presentation never fails to fascinate. Early in the performance he warns the audience that he will be speaking for 90 minutes and some of the material might be difficult or boring. It isn’t. Irwin holds the stage without a moment’s pause or hesitation, and you could hear a pin drop in the packed house.

Besides performing, with intelligent explanation and commentary, many of Beckett’s most famous passages, Irwin dilates upon the comedic potential of various hats, the debate on the pronunciation of “Godot,” reflects on the possible symbolism of that puzzling play, performs a good deal of slapstick and some tricks with a cane, appears to actually change his height, runs through multiple characters in rapid succession, and generally astounds.

For theatre folk, this is a banquet. For lovers of Beckett, it’s a revelation. For theatre goers in general, it’s guaranteed entertainment.

“On Beckett,” Bill Irwin’s one man tour-de-force, continues a limited run at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater through October 23, 2020. For further information, click here.


Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“On Beckett” conceived and performed by Bill Irwin. An Irish Repertory Theatre production, produced by Octopus Theatricals, presented at A.C.T. Scenic Designer: Charlie Corcoran. Costume Consultant: Martha Hally. Lighting Designer: Michael Gottlieb. Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab.

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