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

Marin’s Godot and the impression we exist

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Mark Bedard (left) is Vladimir and Mark Anderson Phillips is Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, now at Marin Theatre Company. Below: James Carpenter (left) as Pozzo and Ben Johnson as Lucky complicate the barren landscape. Photos by Kevin Berne

I suspect Samuel Beckett knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Waiting for Godot and left more questions unanswered than answered. The less specific you are, the more your audience members project their own business onto the characters and their situation.

The world Beckett creates could be the depressed past or the post-apocalyptic future. He could be writing about God and religion or about the hell of human existence. His main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, could be clowns or tragic figures or both. It’s all up for discussion, open for interpretation. Everything is symbolic or nothing is symbolic and just is what it is and the population has increased. And that’s the genius of Beckett and the joy of his most famous play.

The first time you experience Godot is often the best (if you’re fortunate enough to see a solid production). My first time – and to consider this a theatrical deflowering is not at all inappropriate – was in the early ’90s on a stage in the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s skeevy Tenderloin neighborhood. Dennis Moyer was directing for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred John Robb and Joe Bellan in the leads, with a mind-blowingly brilliant Dan Hiatt as Lucky. This production demonstrated to me just how transcendent Beckett could be: funny and sad at the same time, crude and enlightened, bleak and hopeful. So many contradictions in one theatrical experience and yet so completely entertaining and moving.

That production is my high-water mark for Godot (although I love the original cast recording with Burt Lahr as Estragon and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir: click here to download on Amazon for a mere $3.56). I’ve seen productions since that I liked, but not one I loved as much as the first time.

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But the current production at Marin Theatre Company directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis comes pretty close. Mark Anderson Phillips as Estragon and Mark Bedard as Vladimir are, in a word, adorable. Should these crusty characters be adorable? Why not? Both of them at various times reminded me of dogs (and I noticed for the first time just how many canine references there are in the play), and sometimes Phillips even sounds like Scooby-Doo. Their clowning is inspired, but it’s all done with heart. I really liked these guys, who affectionately call each other Gogo and Didi, and that affection only magnifies their plight.

And just what is their plight? Living life is the short answer. Killing time. Waiting for whatever or whoever it is with the power to suddenly make their lives better, more interesting or somehow more meaningful. Vladimir, who tends to be more of an optimist than Estragon, says about life: “We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it…In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”

Much of Godot is about staving off boredom or at least creating the illusion of activity or some kind of momentum through the world. Waiting is, after all, an activity, and an exhausting one at that. It can even be exhausting just to watch men waiting, although in the hands of talented actors like the ones on the MTC stage, it’s also entertaining.

Phillips and Bedard make a captivating tragicomic duo. There’s real chemistry between them, and it’s easy to see why, even though they talk constantly of separating, they can never part. In this day and age, you could see how Didi and Gogo might be poster children for same-sex marriage minus the sex (which is what makes it marriage, ba dum bum). They’re partners in the futility, frustrations and occasional fun of life, and we root for them, not necessarily to succeed, which seems a tall order, but at least to rise above the misery and tedium from time to time. There are little details in their performances that are priceless, like Bedard’s penguin-like shuffle and the way Phillips keeps buttoning and unbuttoning a top button on his coat even though there is no button.

When James Carpenter and Ben Johnson arrive as Pozzo, a master, and Lucky, a slave, respectively. The play takes a decidedly darker turn. Both Carpenter and Johnson are in fright makeup. Carpenter looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie (the red hair is a nice touch) and Johnson looks like a member of the Addams Family.

But the show belongs to Phillips and Bedard, two lovably sad guys being human under bleak but not impossible circumstances. I do find myself wondering, though, where their clothes and bowler hats came from, where they shower (if they do) and how they subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots and black radishes. Clearly, they live in a world that still puts a lot of faith in the Bible (there are lots of references), and down the road there’s apparently some sort of fair where Pozzo was going to sell Lucky but ends up blinded (and Lucky is rendered mute). It’s a strange in-between world Beckett has created, a time-bending absurdist purgatory built for entertainment and, if you’re in the frame of mind, enlightenment. The simple but expert design certainly helps (clean, bright lighting by York Kennedy, barren tree and rock landscape by set designer Liliana Duque Pineiro, tattered suits by costumer Maggie Whitaker).

Seeing Godot in 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about a comment a friend made recently: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll have my iPhone with me, and when you have an iPhone, you always have a friend.” Perhaps we should start calling our smart phones and tablets Didi or Gogo. They’re our newest defense against boredom, our electronic shield from the great void of simply existing and a powerful illusion that we’re actually connected to other people and a way to masque the howling of existential angst.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

A happy ending for Happy Days

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Patty Gallagher is a gun-toting Winnie in the Cal Shakes production of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. Photo by Kevin Berne

In the world of live theater, you never know from where the drama will come.

For California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone and his production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, there was already a certain amount of drama in the choice of the play – the first time Moscone had tackled Beckett and the first time Beckett would be performed in all the outdoor glory of the Bruns Amphitheater.

As a way to counteract the risk of doing an essentially one person play (one person who, by the way, is stuck in a mound of muck for the entire play), Moscone cast Oscar-nominee Marsha Mason, one of those comforting and familiar actors we’ve watched, admired and enjoyed for years. Add a little celebrity pizzazz to a play potential patrons might not know much about and you have a theatrical event.

But oh, the drama. Deep into the rehearsal period, Mason had to exit the production for, as the theater company put it, “personal reasons.” Suddenly the event is now back to the red zone of risk.

In steps Patty Gallagher, an associate professor of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz. Where patrons might have said, “Marsha Mason, how wonderful,” they now say, “Patty who?”

Well Patty Gallagher is a hero for stepping into a difficult role in a difficult play (a role she’d done before and a play she teaches) and even more of a hero for a performance that is full of life and a kind of joy you don’t expect in a Beckett musing on mortality. The valiant effort is applause-worthy enough. But what she does with the role goes beyond heroic. She’s a revelation.

Moscone and his company embraced the drama in a way that actually enhances the experience of watching the play. More specifically, Moscone began blogging about directing the show, about Mason’s departure and about working with Gallagher and her co-star, Dan Hiatt, who appears intermittently but is essential to the power of the play. In a frank and open way, Moscone exposes the stress of the experience but also the support he received and the depth he was able to reach with Gallagher and Hiatt. Here’s a sample of Moscone writing on Aug. 3 in an entry titled “I’m nervous but I’m in love”:

“Have frankly been quite exhausted, physically that is, not mentally or spiritually, from this week’s work. But I have to say, I am in a place I thought I’d never be. I cherish this project in a way that surpasses any other piece I have worked on in my life. Partly it’s the events of the week that make me feel more connected to this piece than perhaps to other plays that haven’t seen themselves through a real crisis-turned-opportunity. And a great part is this play. Patty (Gallagher) makes me love this work and have a deep emotional connection to Beckett, something I thought would never happen.”

Knowing what went on behind the scenes adds an extra layer of excitement to the play, and that layer underscores what Beckett already seems to be driving at: amid all the garbage, mud, dirt and pain of life, we can choose to view all of it with gratitude, through our connection to others and with the simple joy of being alive. That’s what I took away from Gallagher’s ebullient Winnie, a formally dressed woman stuck up to her waist in a dirt mound (Todd Rosenthal’s set pours right off the Bruns stage and into the audience).

Winnie wakes in the morning at the sound of a piercing bell, performs the routine that sustains her, attempts to chat with her husband, Willie, who lives in another part of the dirt mound, and tries valiantly to find things to be cheerful about, whether it’s memories, a mumbled word from Wilie or the pleasure of language itself. She is quite literally being buried alive (in Act 2 she’s buried up to her neck) but she is more alive than many of the people we know.

I have often found Beckett intimidating – the gnawing sense of not getting it tends to destroy my ability to enjoy the play. But several Beckett productions stick in my mind as having helped me relax enough to really listen and experience Beckett – one was Cutting Ball Theatre’s Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year. The other was years and years ago, in a small theater at the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Hiatt co-starred as Lucky in Waiting for Godot, and he was brilliant. Dennis Moyer directed the production for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred Joe Bellan and John Robb.

That hugely enjoyable production was the first time I realized that Beckett could be equal parts brilliance and boredom, entertainment and brain-stretching philosophy. That’s what Happy Days is, and it also feels like therapy for our world at this particular moment in history. May we all be as lucky or as resilient, as resourceful or as valiant as Winnie and, like her, go down singing.

Backstage drama, onstage drama – it’s all the same thing when it feeds the audience and gives us more to muse upon. There’s a happy ending for this production of Happy Days, but the ending of the play itself is a miraculous blend of the shattering, the beautiful and the inspirational. There’s no such thing as happiness as a destination – only moments, here and gone.

And can I add, one great moment of happiness in this production came from the intermission music mix. While the audience milled about the Bruns, an instrumental version of the theme song from the TV show “Happy Days” played, and I could think of nothing more appropriate.


Cal Shakes’ Happy Days continues through Sept. 6 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Call 510 548-9666 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Krapp’s Last Tape’

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Paul Gerrior is Krapp, a 69-year-old writer spending his birthday with the spirits of his younger selves via an old reel-to-reel tape recorder in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a Cutting Ball Theater production at the EXIT on Taylor. Photos by Margaret Whitaker

Get a load of `Krapp,’ another sad Beckett clown

Exactly 40 years ago, Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for a body of work that, even though it has been parsed and produced to a fare thee well for more than five decades, remains elusive, mysterious and vast. There’s space and darkness and humor aplenty in the world of Beckett, and all those qualities are the exact opposite of our fast, narrow, digital world.

It’s hard to imagine Krapp, the hero of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, celebrating his 69th birthday by plugging into an iPod or sliding a gleaming CD into a player as a means of listening to the voice of his 39-year-old self. No, there’s something entirely appropriate about the old man punching buttons and slinging ribbons of tape on a clunky old reel-to-reel tape recorder in order to conjure (and deride) the voice of his youth.

Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Krapp, now at the EXIT on Taylor, is, thankfully, a glimpse of time out of time. It could be 1958 (the play’s year of birth) or it could be in the back closet of now. Whatever time period allows for reel-to-reel, electricity, bananas and offstage hooch, that’s the time we’re in.

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Director Rob Melrose (who also designed the set – a table, a chair, some drawers and some boxes – and the lights) creates an inviting contrast between the stark light where Krapp sits and the thick blackness that surrounds him.

Paul Gerrior is a pitch-perfect Krapp. For much of the play’s brief but rich 45 minutes, Gerrior is a reactor. He’s listening to a recording made by his 39-year-old self (the voice on the tape, full of youthful pseudo-wisdom, belongs to David Sinaiko), who comments on listening to a previous tape made in his late 20s. It’s the three ages of the man all at once, and the expressive Gerrior gives us plenty to experience, even when he’s just listening.

The play begins with a little slapstick as Krapp rummages through drawers and finds a banana. He blithely tosses the peel on the floor then begins pacing. If you know anything about comedy, a banana peel on the floor means only one…oops, he just slipped on it. Ba dum bum.

When Krapp finally settles into the listening (the spot-on sound design is by Cliff Caruthers), the mood turns pretty bleak, especially when, after sufficient listening, Krapp attempts to record this year’s tape. Bitterness, rage and regret seep through his gruff crankiness, leaving us with an incredible vantage point into the aging process of a vibrant, creative mind. Krapp’s younger self has great expectations and won’t be derailed, “Not with the fire in me now,” he says.

But the older Krapp is more extinguished. There’s still a flame of sorts, but he says he’s “drowned in dreams and burning to be gone.” Such sentiment, which reverberates in the silence of a recording with no recorded sound, stir emotions that make Krapp’s Last Tape last far longer than its brief running time.


Cutting Ball Theater’s Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett continues through June 21 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Cal Shakes announces ’09 season

As the California Shakespeare Theater heads into its final show of the season (Twelfth Night), artistic director Jonathan Moscone has announced next summer’s line-up.

The season will mark Moscone’s 10th anniversary heading Cal Shakes, and he will direct Romeo and Juliet and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days starring Marsha Mason(right) in her Cal Shakes debut.

Mark Rucker, currently helming Twelfth Night, will return with Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and Aaron Posner makes his Cal Shakes debut directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rucker is a familiar face at the Bruns Amphitheater (Richard III in 2007, Romeo and Juliet in 2001), but Posner isn’t as well known. He’s the artistic director of New Jersey’s Two River Theater Company, where he recently produced Macbeth, conceived and co-directed by Posner and Teller of Penn and Teller, with magic designed by Teller.

Cal Shakes has previously produced Romeo and Juliet in 1977, 1983, 1989, 1994 and 2001; A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1974, 1975, 1979, 1985, 1991, 1997 and 2002. Next season’s productions of Beckett and Coward mark the playwrights’ first appearances at Cal Shakes.

Here’s how the schedule shakes out:
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jonathan Moscone – May 27-June 21
Noel Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Mark Rucker – July 8-Aug. 2
Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by Jonathan Moscone – Aug. 12-Sept. 6
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Aaron Posner – Sept. 16-Oct. 11

Season subscriptions range from $224-$112. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.

They do not move

One of the most famous stage directions in theater history _ other than Shakespeare’s “Exit, pursued by a bear” _ is from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. At the end of the absurdist comedy’s first act, two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, are frustrated. They’ve been waiting and waiting for Mr. Godot who never seems to show up.

“Well?” says one. “Shall we go?”

“Yes,” says the other. “Let’s go.”

Then Beckett adds: “They do not move.”

It’s sort of like how Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing. In its exploration of nothingness, it managed to be about a zillion different things.

Everyone wants to know who Godot is. Is he God? Is he Death?

“If I knew, I would have said so in the play,” said a cranky Beckett, clearly tired of being asked to explain his cryptic comedy.

Figure out the Godot riddle for yourself this week as Cal Performances brings back the Gate Theatre of Ireland production starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy in the lead roles. McGovern and Murphy also starred in the 2000 production that rolled through Berkeley.

Performances are at 8 p.m. today and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $65. Call (510) 642-9988 or visit for information.