Tears of a clown

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.


by Samuel Beckett directed and performed by Bill Irwin Seattle Repertory Theatre Mainstage, Seattle Center, 443-2222, $10-$44 ends Sun., May 26

SAMUEL BECKETT is best known as a playwright, but he also wrote a great deal of material never intended for public performance. Texts for Nothing, currently occupying the mainstage at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, demonstrates that in this, as in so many other areas, Beckett's intentions are worth attending to.

The Texts were written toward the end of five years of incessant creativity that produced not only Beckett's best-known and most admired play, Waiting for Godot, but three novels: Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Admirers of the novels (most of them tenured professors of English literature) tend to regard the Texts not as finished artifacts but as studies, sketches—shavings from the novelist's workbench. Beckett called them "abortive."

Performer-director Bill Irwin and his collaborators exert themselves to bring four of Beckett's "abortions" to the stage, but no matter how much you applaud the goal, it doesn't pay off as drama. This is particularly disappointing because over the years, Irwin has grown immensely as an actor.

Clowns, the clich頨as it, long to play tragedy. Most don't have the temperament, let alone the chops, to do so. Ten years ago, I would have guessed that Irwin, a master of airy, effortless mime but with the emotional weight of a sparrow, was particularly unlikely to make the leap. Well, he's made it. The rubbery body is as flexible as ever; that round face with its shiny blue button eyes is still masklike. But something's going on now behind the mask—disturbing thoughts, terrible visions, all the more terrifying because we only catch a glimpse of them. Irwin is able to rivet us without moving a muscle, to show us fear in the proverbial handful of dust. You couldn't ask for a better actor for Beckett.

But this isn't a Beckett play he's performing; it lacks the solid dramatic carpentry that underpins the master's best work, the delicate balance of setup and payoff borrowed from music-hall comedy sketches, used to both comic and tragic effect. The Texts—Irwin has selected four from a published 13—are amorphous, evanescent, fragmentary, bits of psychic scenery glimpsed through drifting fog. They have their impact, even charm: But four fuzzy snapshots glued together at the edges don't add up to a landscape, let alone a moving picture.

THE INTENSE FEELING we catch sight of from time to time in Irwin's performance indicates that the performer has studied the words he's saying long and hard. But he doesn't trust them to make us feel what he feels; Irwin's delivery is so mannered, it's often difficult to make out the words, let alone what they mean. Beckett's already broken, elliptical sentences are chopped into a hash of peeps, hoots, grunts, growls, and drawls.

Even when the meaning is clear, it isn't left to make its own effect. Irwin mines the lines for gags (and finds some that aren't there), brandishes them like hand props, illustrates them word by word with very deft and funny but essentially unnecessary mime. It might have been moving and memorable to watch this marvelously gifted performer tiptoe over an existential abyss on the high wire of Beckett's prose. But for most of the evening the text is Irwin's trampoline, and it's hard to become emotionally involved in a gymnastic exhibition, however perfectly executed the moves.

The show would undoubtedly be more effective if more simply produced in a smaller space. By Seattle Rep standards, Texts for Nothing is practically poor theater, but Doug Stein's dusty cave setting is still too concrete and sensuous, too generic, and too obviously an actor's playpen to provide a neutral background for Beckett's wispy smoke signals.

But the central problem here is Irwin—not just for Beckett, and for us, but for Irwin. When just one clown of many with the Pickle Family Circus, he was already something rare: a funnyman who could turn every pratfall into a thing of beauty. For more than 20 years, through native talent, intelligence, and relentless work, he has turned himself into an actor of incalculable capacities. Now two talents struggle to possess that one amazing body. Texts for Nothing is an attempt to allow them both to shine. Instead, it proves that they are starting to get in each other's way.


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