Bill Irwin clowns around with Beckett

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Bill Irwin dives into the work of a favorite writer in On Beckett, part of the American Conservatory Theater at the Toni Rembe Theater. Photo by Craig Schwartz

About five years ago, the great Bill Irwin brought his solo show On Beckett to The Strand Theater as part of the American Conservatory Theater season. I described this journey into the work of Samuel Beckett as a lecture demonstration, but “you’d have to rank it among the best imaginable lecture demonstrations.” I still stand behind that review (read it here), but now that Irwin has brought the show back – to ACT’s big stage, the Toni Rembe Theater, this time – I feel like it’s even more enjoyable as a one-man play. It simply bursts with joy, and Irwin is really good at joy.

The show is ostensibly Irwin talking about why he loves Beckett and his draw-you-in, push-you-away energy that makes him so fascinating and so confounding. Irwin spends the better part of 90 minutes explaining why Beckett’s work is inexplicable. Being the superb actor he is, his discussion includes generous helpings of performance – from Texts for Nothing, The Unnamable, Watt, and, most delicious of all, Waiting for Godot (how you pronounce that depends on where you fall on what Irwin calls a “great culture divide”).

As enjoyable as it is to see Irwin inhabit Beckett, the evening’s greatest pleasure is Irwin himself. This is a show about loving art. Irwin loves Beckett and has devoted a good portion of his creative energy to going deeper and deeper into the work. Irwin also loves clowning because, in addition to being a fine actor, he is a clown to his bones, and this show gives him a glorious showcase to share his intellect (along with his high-wattage charm) and his black bowler, baggy trousers and red nose.

Irwin is well aware that Beckett is not to everybody’s taste, so, as creator, director and performer of this piece, he explicates the Beckett oeuvre just enough to make the show feel smarty pants before he puts on an even bigger pair of baggy pants (“industrial!”) and does another clown routine that makes you fully question that he was born in 1950, the same year Beckett published Texts for Nothing.

The section on Godot is especially good because Irwin has so much to say about the play and about the myriad choices actors and directors have to make when producing it. It would be an absolute shame if Irwin doesn’t direct a production one day.

This is a criminally short run for On Beckett, which is not only a thoroughly entertaining and edifying experience but also the only show in town that will point you toward the almost equally rewarding beckittns, a genius pairing of kitten photos and Beckett quotes.
Courtesy of beckittns

Bill Irwin’s On Beckett continues through Oct 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes. Tickets are $25-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Irwin illuminates Beckett at ACT

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Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin returns to American Conservatory Theater with On Beckett, his showcase comprising pieces of Samuel Beckett’s plays, prose and poetry at ACT’s Strand Theater through Jan. 22. Photos by Kevin Berne

Bill Irwin wants to address everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Samuel Beckett but were afraid to ask. His casual one-man show On Beckett, now in a short run at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the enigmatic Beckett from a safe distance and through utterly delightful filter of Irwin, a revered actor and clown with a deep San Francisco history going back to the Pickle Family Circus. Since his Pickle days, Irwin has won himself a Tony Award (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2005) and a reputation as an extraordinary human being in many ways – certainly for his deft clowning but also for his sensitive acting (I saw him on Broadway about 15 years ago in Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? opposite Sally Field and he blew me away in a role that I don’t think was meant to blow anybody away) and for his expanding expertise in the perplexing world of Beckett.

If you think about On Beckett as sort of a lecture demonstration, you’d have to rank it among the best imaginable lecture demonstrations. For about 70 minutes, the 66-year-old Irwin talks about Beckett, though not in a scholarly way. He insists from the start he’s not a Beckett scholar, nowhere near. He hasn’t even read the novels, though he has poked his way through them and extracted performable bits.

Rather, Irwin is a super fan of the Irish writer. As a physical comedian, Irwin says he has a special affinity for the way Beckett writes for the body. This is where the demonstration part kicks in. Performing three of Beckett’s 13 Texts for Nothing (imagine if Beckett, who died in 1989 at age 83 was able to write for texts as we know them today, not published works but jagged pieces of dialogue we zing through the air to each other’s phones), bits from the plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame and a passage from the novel Watt, Irwin brings the work to life as only he can.

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There’s a very fluid feeling to the evening as if Irwin could substitute any one selected piece with another, but the results would be the same: the pleasures of watching him are infinite and Beckett remains captivatingly obtuse. It’s not that Irwin doesn’t illuminate the work. It’s more that with Beckett there’s just no winning. There’s enjoyment, laughs, bafflement and frustration to be sure, but very little clarity. And he’d probably be very happy about that. Well, maybe not happy but content that his work was getting into people’s heads and funny bones even if they have no idea what it all means.

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Irwin followed the performance, as he apparently often does, with a Q&A beginning 90 seconds after the final blackout. Other than lighting cues, there wasn’t a significant difference between the show and the talk-back. Indeed, Irwin ended the Q&A with a treat: a reading from the novel The Unnamable. The most affecting part of the show is Irwin’s discussion of Godot, which he now pronounces GOD-oh (after pronouncing it for years, like many Americans, guh-DOH). Irwin is something of an expert here, having been in the 1988 Mike Nichols production with Robin Williams and Steve Martin as well as in the 2009 production with Nathan Lane and John Goodman, and still the actor says he’d like another crack at the play (and at Endgame, which he did with ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff) because, as with most great writing, you find different levels of meaning at different times of life.

It seems impossible that Irwin, so smart and engaging and genuine in his Beckettian affection, could be pedantic or pretentious, which plenty of people can be when expounding on Beckett. He seems deeply connected to the contradictory worlds Beckett conjures, and his interpretations are beautiful and full of feeling. Toward the end of the show, Irwin pays tribute to Beckett’s affection for vaudeville and offers the audience a bit of a palate cleanser with a soft-shoe tap dance and a song. It’s a sweetly thrilling moment: one master paying homage to another.

Bill Irwin’s On Beckett continues through Jan. 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Irwin and Shiner: Old Hats are the best hats

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Bill Irwin (left), singer/songwriter Shaina Taub (center) and David Shiner light up the Geary Theater in the Signature Theatre production of Old Hats, the season opener for American Conservatory Theater. Below: Shiner and Irwin have a classic clown encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

I will be the first to admit that clowns have never been a favorite of mine. Not circus clowns, not hobo clowns, not mimes, not even a lot of commedia dell’arte rigamarole. Occasionally, however, I get it – I get the comedy, I get the poignancy, I get the masterful balance of comedy and tragedy in the pursuit of laughs.

And by far my favorite clowns – the ones who do it better than just about anybody – are Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Their Full Moon was a revelation both times it was at American Conservatory Theater, and because of that, I expected great things from their latest collaboration, Old Hats, a production of New York’s Signature Theatre that opens the ACT season.

Expectations are dangerous in the theater, but I had them, and Irwin and Shiner more than delivered. This show is as funny and as sweet and as salty as the last one with the added bonus of having the wonderful Shaina Taub on hand to sing her songs and front a fantastic band.

I reviewed Old Hats for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

…now they’re back to open ACT’s season with a victory lap they like to call “Old Hats.” A hit last year for New York’s Signature Theatre, the show is two hours of gratifying laughter in the company of two masters who don’t seem to have aged a day in the 13 years since we last saw them perform together.
They may be flirting (or have flirted) with 60, but these clowns are ageless as long as they’re on stage wearing baggy pants, oversized coats and clown shoes (costumes and set design by G.W. Mercier). Whether they’re performing hat tricks, ribbing each other or performing a good, old-fashioned vaudeville dance, they do everything with a polish and precision that makes everything look natural and easy.

Read the full review here.

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Old Hats continues through Oct. 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
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I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

There’s no escapin’ the joys of this Scapin


Jud Williford (right) and Bill Irwin make a delightfully dynamic duo in ACT’s Scapin. Below inset, Irwin, and further below, the Scapin ensemble. Photos courtesy of

If you want to see what funny looks like, you should see Bill Irwin in a comedy. In recent years, he’s been fairly serious, what with his stage work in shows like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (a Tony Award-winning turn opposite Kathleen Turner) or The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (opposite Sally Field) and his movie work as a dedicated dishwasher-loading dad in Rachel Getting Married.

But Irwin is a clown in the purest sense. The Bay Area knows him as one of the founders of the Pickle Family Circus, and his alter ego, Willy the Clown, is as beloved as they come.

We’ve seen Irwin on the American Conservatory Theater stage in the last few years, in his luminous Fool Moon project with David Shiner and the conundrum of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, but his return as the title character in Moliere’s Scapin, ACT’s season opener, is reason to cheer.

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As dexterous and expressive a physical comedian as you’ll ever see, Irwin’s genius is that he’s not a show off. He’s a reveler. He revels in his every movement and rubber-faced grimace. He delights in his interactions with the other actors on stage and the smiling faces in his audience. It’s not all about him (though it easily could be) – it’s about the collective experience.

That’s reason enough to see Scapin, which is merrily directed by Irwin himself and features an irreverently updated script by Irwin and Mark O’Donnell (author of the wonderful novel Getting Over Homer and a Tony winner for his work on Hairspray’s book).

Without seeming to try too hard, Irwin does everything with humor. His walk is more like falling down, dancing and melting, all at the same time. His face never stops commenting on everything happening around him, and his verbal timing is just as sharp as it needs to be.

Irwin’s Scapin, a farcical fracas of winsome lovers and greedy fathers, is a free for all with its references to ACT subscribers, Inception, Robert DeNiro and gay marriage. Irwin and O’Donnell have stripped Moliere’s script to its essence, laying bare all the conventions of the farce, from the unbelievable consequences (helpfully pointed out by giant signs) to the requisite chase.

It’s all just so much silliness – brilliantly outfitted in the outrageously rich creations of costumer Beaver Bauer – but Irwin rises to the top of the fray like cream. Ably and comically backed by musicians Randall Craig and Keith Terry (both former Pickles), he elevates the rest of the ensemble, which includes some fine work by Geoff Hoyle (another old Pickle), Gregory Wallace and Steven Anthony Jones.

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But the truly wonderful surprise is Jud Williford as Sylvestre, one of Scapin’s servant peers. Apparently Williford and Irwin bonded several years ago when Williford was an ACT MFA student and Irwin was conducting a master class. Irwin knew then that Williford would be a brilliant second banana in Scapin, and he is.

In fact, he’s almost as good as the top banana. Sylvestre is a juicy role, and Williford makes the most of it. He gets loads of laughs, but he’s also warm and human.

The surprise isn’t that Williford is good. He’s always good – look no further than his recent performance in the title role of Macbeth at the California Shakespeare Theater. No, the surprise is that he’s so vibrant and funny, especially compared to the incomparable Irwin. The two have great chemistry, and it’s nice to see that the king of comedy now has a clown prince.


Moliere’s Scapin continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$90. Call 415 749-2228 or visit for information.

The `irk’ in Cirque

It could be that I have been burned by the Circus of the Sun.

Now, I fully realize there are worse things to suffer in life than weariness of Cirque du Soleil, the phenomenally successful new-age Canadian circus troupe. And I also realize that to be weary of Cirque means I’ve had the great good fortune to see a whole lot of Cirque shows.

The first Cirque show I saw, Alegria, remains my favorite; a common occurrence, I’ve come to learn, among Cirque fans is that your first time is usually your favorite time.

That initial experience really is magical. It’s the kind of experience you long for in any theatrical endeavor, be it Hamlet or Don Giovanni or Oklahoma! Soaking in the Cirque mystique — the gorgeous, colorful costumes, the rich, worldly music, the mysterious sense that somehow, somewhere the obscure “story” of the show actually makes sense — is tremendously transporting.

I left the Grand Chapiteau (even Cirque’s name for its blue-and-yellow-striped tent has pretensions) that first time thinking I had just seen the most brilliant thing ever.

I don’t usually like clowns, but I liked the clowns in Alegria (among them was Slava, who turned his wondrous bit in that show into an entire, and entirely awful, theatrical experience called Slava’s Snow Show).
And I found the music so intriguing I went out and bought the CD.

Color me a Cirque du Soleil fan circa 1995.

I’ve seen pretty much everything since, including all the permanent Las Vegas shows. Now we have the latest tour, Kooza, making its U.S. debut in San Francisco Friday (Nov. 16), where it continues through Jan. 13 before moving down to San Jose from Jan. 31 through March 2.

The arrival of a new Cirque used to set me all atwitter. Now, from my jaded, seen-it-all perspective, I shrug my shoulders, raise my eyebrows and mutter, “Maybe,” or if I’m feeling French-Canadian, “Peut-etre.”

The last Cirque show to come through the Bay Area, Corteo,” had its moments, but it also had some horrors (one Act 2 clown routine is probably the worst I’ve seen in a Cirque show).

The mega-Cirque shows in Vegas — Ka (the Cirque with an actual plot), Zumanity (the naughty “adult” Cirque), Love (the Beatles Cirque), Mystere (the one with the giant sea snail) and O (the one Cirque that maintains its magical hold year after year) — have a tendency to be mind-numbing simply because they’re so big, so multifaceted and so much the same.

Sure, they all have their themes and gimmicks, their beauty and their thrills. But it’s all essentially ladled from the same Soup du Soleil.

Does anybody really remember what differentiated Varekai from Dralion?

Now that I’ve whined about the pioneer of modern circus, let me share what interests me about Kooza. Two words: David Shiner.

Bay Area audiences know Shiner to be a master clown. Better yet, he’s a master bitter clown — belligerent, aggressive and hard-edged.

We have enjoyed his sour alongside Bill Irwin’s sweet in the brilliant clown show Fool Moon, which played the Geary Theater twice — in 1998 and 2001.

Shiner is the first American writer-director of a Cirque show, and he has said that Kooza, a made-up word inspired by “koza,” Sanskrit for “box, chest or treasure,” goes back to the origins of Cirque — back when Shiner was working on Nouvelle Experience in Cirque’s late ’80s-early ’90s days.

The show, Shiner says, is about “human connection and the world of duality, good and bad. The tone is fun and funny, light and open. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s very much about ideas, too.”

That sounds promising. The emphasis seems to be on acrobatics and clowning and features a stunt called “Wheel of Death.” Hard to resist the lure of potential death at the highbrow circus.

Whatever it takes — I’m ready for the “irk” to be taken out of my Cirque du Soleil attitude.

Kooza continues through Jan. 13 (now extended through Jan. 20) in the tent in the parking lot behind AT&T Park, corner of Third Street and Terry A. Francois Boulevard, San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $38.50 to $81. Call 866-624-7783 or visit

Another Cirque in SF

The big yellow-and-blue-striped tent — the Grand Chapiteau — is heading back to the Bay Area.
Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show, KOOZA, will have its U.S. premiere Nov. 16 in the parking lot behind San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The show then moves to San Jose Jan. 31.

You can never tell with the quirky Cirque, but this show sounds pretty straightforward — a return to a more traditional circus tradition of acrobats and clowns. The director is David Shiner, a clown well known to Bay Area audiences for his work with Bill Irwin in Fool Moon and for his performance in the early Cirque show Nouvelle Experience.

KOOZA, currently on tour in Canada, centers on a character called The Innocent, a “melancholy loner in search of his place in the world.” Creators promise “bold slapstick humor” as The Innocent encounters The Trickster, The Pickpocket and, most intriguingly, The Bad Dog.

Tickets are $55 to $90 and go on sale to Cirque Club members June 28 and to the rest of us in July.

Visit or call (800) 678-5440.

Review: `Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Irwin, Turner find laughs, depth in howling Woolf
three stars [1/2] stars Painfully funny

Why is it we’re still interested in George and Martha, the bellicose spouses in Edward Albee’s 1962 drama in which very little happens?

Within the first few minutes of the play, Martha calls George a “dumbbell” and tells him, “You make me puke…If you existed, I’d divorce you.” Then she describes him as a “simp,” “blah,” “cipher,” “zero.”

Ah, marriage.

Albee’s play doesn’t shock as much anymore, but more than 40 years after its sensational debut, it still stings. Maybe that’s why we’re willing to sit through George and Martha’s nightmarish relationship. We go to the theater to feel something, and a sting is something.

Of course our interest in George and Martha depends largely on the actors playing them, and in the touring Broadway production of the play now at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner (above) are putting on a hell of a show — hell being the operative word.

With her Body Heat and Romancing the Stone days behind her, Turner has evolved into something of a sexy linebacker. She’s still sexy and gravelly voiced, but she’s also big and scary. There’s a vehemence to her underscored by intelligence that gives you the distinct impression this woman isn’t going to take any crap from anyone.

And Irwin, beloved in the Bay Area for years as part of the Pickle Family Circus and later as one of the world’s greatest clowns, seems at times to turn George into a clown, but he also manages to make the character so tightly wound, so deeply troubled it seems he’ll pop his sanity spring at any moment.

The Turner-Irwin pas de deux — under the sensitive direction of Anthony Page — is more than enough reason to see this sturdy production, especially if your only memory of the play is the 1966 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This version is much funnier, much less shrill and, thanks to Albee’s 2004 revisions, much more mysterious.

To watch George and Martha eviscerate each other in front of their late-night, post-party guests Nick (David Furr, below with Turner) and Honey (Kathleen Early) is to witness performers truly come alive in front of their audience. Are George and Martha really as awful as they seem, drinking up a storm and screaming at each other about deeply personal failures and flaws? Or are they playing games and putting on a show for their own perverse amusement?

There’s no real answer, but that’s pretty much it for plot. Somehow, Albee manages to stretch the mystery (and satisfy our voyeuristic need for “schadenfreude,” the German notion of finding happiness in the misfortune of others) over three acts, titled “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism.”

It certainly helps that Furr, as the latest golden boy to catch Martha’s eye, and Early, as his quick-to-vomit lush of a wife, are such compelling victims of George and Martha’s twisted idea of an evening’s entertainment.

Nick and Honey are shocked by George and Martha’s sparring, but George reassures them: “Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all.”

Well, they get quite a workout.

By Act 3, when the constant cocktails have turned everyone into zombies and the games get really ugly, Albee is aiming for something more than harsh comedy or dark social satire. As George and Martha talk about their (possibly fictional) son, their games become more exposed and their need for each other more blatant.

This is where the production flattens out some. Genuine emotion feels foreign, and, like addicts, we’re left wanting just a little more bile. Seeing George and Martha as damaged human beings rather than well-armed matrimonial guerillas is, sorry to say, a disappointment.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exhausting, but in a good way. By the end, you feel you’ve experienced something, even if that something makes you feel you’ve had too many drinks, cigarettes and fights and you can’t wait to leave the stuffy living room (terrifically realistic set by John Lee Beatty and lights by Peter Kaczorowski) you’ve been happily trapped in.

We’ve appreciated Albee’s sharp, funny writing and the expertly nuanced performances, but, like Nick and Honey, we just want to go home and see if any of the wounds are visible.

To paraphrase George, that, as they say, is that.

For information about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? visit

Who’s afraid of Bill Irwin?

The Bay Area fell in love with Bill Irwin more than 30 years ago when he clowned around with the Pickle Family Circus.

One of our most inspired physical comedians — his best work can stand alongside Chaplin and Keaton — Irwin is doing what clowns do when they get older: He’s getting serious.

In recent years, we’ve seen Irwin at his clowning best in Fool Moon at American Conservatory Theater, and also in his more serious mode in Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, also at ACT.

Earlier this week, Irwin returned to his old stomping grounds in the horrific clown show known as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which begins previews April 11 and opens April 13 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre. This is the same stage where Irwin goofed around (brilliantly) in Largely New York in 1977.

This is sort of a victory lap for Irwin, who snagged a Tony Award for his portrayal of George, the dour, bespectacled academic whose wife, Martha — played on this tour as on Broadway and in London’s West End by the formidable Kathleen Turner — is as bad at holding her liquor as he is.
Of the original 1963 production, critic Walter Kerr had this to say: “It’s a horror show with laughs.”

Irwin has his own quick description: “A love story with acid of various kinds.”

Speaking on the phone from Chicago, the tour’s pre-San Francisco stop, Irwin says he has seen the play shift from an “incendiary, somewhat shameful thing” in the early ’60s to classic status today.

“Edward wrote this play in his early 30s, yet he knew how to write a love story and about marriage,” Irwin says. “Even in his wild youth he knew it. One of the best compliments we got early on — we were out of town in Boston before the Broadway run — and somebody told me after the show that Kathleen and I seemed married the moment we walked onstage.”

Irwin’s transition from clown to serious, Tony-winning actor began with Beckett, which then led to a Broadway stint in Albee’s The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) alongside Sally Field.

Now that he’s played two Albee husbands — one drunk and ferocious, the other having an affair with a goat — Irwin says he sees some similarities.

“There’s some unnameable quality in Edward’s dialogue. It’s sharp, and there’s always a cause and effect. There’s just this underlying `Edwardness,’ which is to say, a fascination with language, puns both good and bad and easy learnedness.”

The most famous version of Virginia Woolf is the movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Irwin saw it when he was 17, and unlike Albee and Turner, he’s a fan of the movie.

“It’s a very funny play, and the movie is generally considered to be unfunny, but I find it much funnier than I remembered,” Irwin says.

In the rehearsal hall, when Irwin was desperate for any crumb of information that might help him put a distinctive stamp on the character of George, Irwin recalls hearing Albee discuss his fantasy casting for the movie.

“Edward said he had been hoping for a different cast,” Irwin recalls. “He wanted Bette Davis and James Mason. That gave me a clue. Burton was a big, barrel-chested, powerful man. My take on George is different. From the moment I heard Edward say the name, my George has had a little James Mason going.”

Albee has done some judicious cutting to the play — though it still runs nearly three hours — and added back in all the swear words that were excised in the ’60s.

“There’s more ambiguity to the play,” Irwin says. “It’s less clear to the audience and to the characters what’s going on and whether people are fabricating or talking about something that actually happened.”

Being a physical comedian, Irwin — who turns 57 April 11 — is used to arduous shows, but Virginia Woolf is a challenge.

“My friend Nancy Harrington, who helped us create Fool Moon, said that Fool Moon was a whole lot easier than what I’m doing now. In a certain sense it’s true and not true. We just had some time off from the tour, and I went home. I was in my bed in my house, and I didn’t sleep well. I felt I should be doing the play every night. I had anxiety dreams. I can tell you, I’m going to miss this play. It will be a weight off my bones when we’re done, but this play is in my bones — for better and for worse.”

Initially, Irwin was nervous about his chemistry with Turner — would there be any? At an early reading, with director Anthony Page in a sweltering dance studio, things didn’t go so well. “I had trepidation going in, and even more going out,” Irwin says of the experience. “But the play, man, it holds even when you’re bashing through it under terrible circumstances. A few days later, we sat down and readit for Edward and some producers. We had a different pair of actors playing the younger couple, and the whole thing lit up. We know something nice was happening when one of the producers, who said she could only stay for the first act, stayed for the whole thing.”

Since, then, Irwin says, there has been very little “grad school” analysis of the play in favor of focusing on the emotions and — this might surprise some — the humor.

“I hope it doesn’t feel like we’re doing a classic play respectfully,” Irwin says.

As for Irwin’s future beyond Woolf, he is, as he puts it goodhumoredly, “contractually forced” to create a new show for the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The working title is The Happiness Lecture. There’s also a “small film” director Jonathan Demme wants him to do this fall.

“Life has intriguing possibilities,” Irwin says. “Despite aging and going deper into middle age, life is exciting. Now, if we could just extract our nation from its terrible foreign policy.”

Ah, Bill Irwin, ever the clown.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through May 12 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$80. Call (415) 512-7770 or visit for information.

Note: New Conservatory Theatre Center hosts “A Conversation with Bill Irwin” at 7 p.m. April 23 at 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call (415) 861-8972 or visit