texts for nothing

A Prose Work By Samuel Beckett
Directed and Performed by Bill Irwin
Seattle Repertory Theatre
155 Mercer St. Seattle, WA 98109 / (206) 443-2222

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

The work of Samuel Beckett constitutes one of the fundamental grammars of late Twentieth Century thought. "Waiting for Godot" is, of course, his masterpiece, but in addition to his plays, his novels and prose work are definitions of the existential philosophy and condition. It's from that prose that these texts are taken.

Bill Irwin is, arguably, America's greatest physical comedian, and a theatre artist who always brings precise intelligence and an essential seriousness to his clowning. That combination, added to his deep personal understanding of Beckett, makes "texts for nothing", which Irwin selected, directed and performs, an almost definitive presentation of absurdist theatre.

Douglas Stein has designed an impressive and brilliantly functional set, beautifully lighted by Nancy Schertler. A long, narrowing slope of rock cuts diagonally across the stage, fanning out to a stretch of loose sand, interrupted only by holes, quagmires, uneven protrusions and a small growth of pointless grass. The action begins with sand falling down the slope, followed by Irwin, who then makes countless futile attempts to ascend back to whatever place he came from. Between those efforts he speaks, or attempts to speak, seeks rest or comfort that cannot be found, considers his place and meaning and purpose, only to reject every conclusion, and ultimately is consumed into the very landscape on which he has struggled to exist.

The performance is simply perfect. I could literally go on for pages about what Bill Irwin accomplishes before he speaks his first line. Because words are such an imprecise means of both description and expression, he is constantly subverting the text and delivery. His body is as alien and inhospitable a living environment as the landscape around him. Simply the act of resting his head becomes intimate, touching, painful and tender, as well as unachievable. Implied in every gesture is the rigorous minimalism which is the essential Beckett style. He commands each idea of the play without ever accepting for a moment the validity of ideas. The longing is balanced perfectly with futility, amusement with despair, fear with the ridiculous, and faith with hopelessness.

I doubt that I will ever see a better production of Beckett's work than this. The problem, however, seems to be with Samuel Beckett himself. His contribution is so huge, so revolutionary, that one could argue that all post-modern drama can be seen in relation to his work. And so it has been subsumed into the very body of modern theatre art. But once you've got his message that life guarantees nothing but the act of being, and that even that is conditional, there is (as for all of his characters) nowhere else to go. In the 1950's, Samuel Beckett was like nothing else. Now it all seems dated and a bit stale. It is a place where you absolutely have to go, and once you are there, you can never really leave. So we have to move on.

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