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"Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn't
any more, I couldn't go on. Someone said, You can't stay here. I couldn't stay there and I
couldn't go on." These are the first words spoken by Bill Irwin after sliding and
pratfalling down the muddy slope which is the only setting of this monologue. Consisting
of four sections (#s 1, 4, 9 and 13) of the 13-part Samuel Beckett prose work, Texts
For Nothing is, as performed by master clown Irwin, alternately despairing and
hilarious, and sometimes both in a single moment. Clad in an ill-fitting jacket, a
collarless white shirt, muddy shoes (the better to slip and slide and step in
strategically placed puddles) and baggy, grayish trousers, Irwin is the greatest
present-day practitioner of the lost art of physical comedy as performed by masters like
Laurel and Hardy, or Buster Keaton. Clowning is the prism through which he approaches
Beckett, and it's not surprising. One Beckett biography describes his wish to have seen Waiting For Godots Didi and Gogo performed by
Laurel and Hardy, and he wrote and directed 1964's Film, which starred Keaton.
Irwin himself appeared as Lucky in the production of Godot which starred Steve
Martin and Robin Williams, and in his notes on Texts he writes "In my mind
they [Texts and Godot] are companion pieces. They are bound together in ways
I wouldn't try to explain or defend; they are pieces of writing, each of them, that I hope
to work with again and again."
Irwin's delivery of the four-part monologue seems initially bizarre. He accents the "wrong" words in a sentence, pacing the phrases in a jarring, arrhythmic way and emphasizing certain points with a pulled face or a gesture which can seem almost at odds with the literal meaning of the sentence. But over time, Irwin conjures a character with this lurching, almost spastic delivery and demeanor, and the viewer is left breathless with anticipation of what spew of pain, of confusion, of sudden anger will come next. We are no longer watching a clown, or even a performance, but a vagrant, a tramp who is not in complete control of his body or his mind. Coming into the theater from the streets of New York City, this portrayal takes on layers of meaning and tragic beauty that the ranting "street-bum" characters of Eric Bogosian, always safely encased in ironic, performative quotes, never attain.
Irwin is the perfect conduit for Beckett's vision and message. He manages to retain the attention of a jaded, there-just-to-be-seen-there New York audience through ridiculous pratfalls and mugging, but by the time the lights go down for the final time, after the tramp has sunk almost entirely into a grave-like hole near the front of the mudpile/stage, the impact of Beckett's words is unavoidable. Slicing with the simplest of prose directly to the heart of the contradictions and thousands of tiny torments which consume the human spirit, he makes us understand that we are each sunk in our own pit, and laughter serves only to stave off the darkness for perhaps one moment longer.
New York, reviewed from final preview, October 13, 2000 - Phil Freeman