Review: Bill Irwin's 'On Beckett' is something unique and rarely seen in Savannah. Don't miss it.

ajc.com

Credit: Craig Schwartz

Credit: Craig Schwartz

“On Beckett” is about nothing and everything. To describe it would do us all a disservice.

The one-man thought experiment, conceived and performed by self-proclaimed Samuel Beckett non-scholar Bill Irwin, soaks in interpretation. It’s an interesting path — a devotee of the acclaimed writer could see it as misguided ramblings, while the more naive viewer, such as myself, could focus more on the machinations at work rather than the actual delivery.

For a little over 80 minutes, Irwin traverses a lifetime of mind games related to the Irish writer. At times, he’ll perform text (namely “Texts for Nothing,” “Watt” and “Waiting for Godot” to name a few) while other times he’ll speak to the audience less with the conviction of a professor but more with the gentle curiosity of a scientist; almost attempting to solve the mystery through the scientific process but unable to ascertain what would be the necessary tools to do so.

But that lack of definition may be what succeeds most with “On Beckett.” At its core, it seems attuned to the artistic concept of interpretation and the idea that what is on the page is not the only path in how it should be evoked.

ajc.com

Credit: Craig Schwartz

Credit: Craig Schwartz

Interpretation in art is such a fascinating concept. There’s nothing written (a light search doesn’t seem to direct us to a Moses of art coming down with slabs of stone to provide us with guidelines for this form of expression) that says we must never deviate from the work.

In a more egalitarian sense, art is an expression that is given to the people to make with what they want. Sure, an artist probably doesn’t want that — their effort was devoted to these words and this language, and this way of interpreting it. And on most levels, that’s understandable.

But on other levels, that’s asking a bit too much. At the end, the art is performed or read or screened, and the audience is left to make from that what they want. The artist would like them to feel a certain way, but expecting a specific response from humans is a losing effort.

If anything, it’s even more freeing — almost exciting — to be given that free range to engage with art on your own level. We each come to life with different experiences and exposed to different paths of thought, so it only seems natural that some pieces of art would engage differently with each of us (or at least provide an entry to a like-minded group finding camaraderie in the shared experience).

ajc.com

Credit: Craig Schwartz

Credit: Craig Schwartz

This is where Irwin thrives in “On Beckett.” The language and text to him dictates not only how he speaks but how he moves. His wardrobe changes as do his rhythms. He contorts and cranks, always restless as he stands in front of you.

This is his version of the text. This is his version of Beckett.

It means something to him and he responds to it the only way he knows how. There’s no right or wrong — it’s just how it comes together.

In probably the most light and freeing moment of the performance, Irwin talks about his attempts to pull away from Beckett, shifting more towards his beginnings in understanding the art of clowns and the history of vaudeville as a way to escape the entrapments of Beckett’s language and power.

The attempts fail, and he says he always is tugged back to the text that haunts him. There’s just always more to explore, more to learn.

ajc.com

Credit: Craig Schwartz

Credit: Craig Schwartz

If there’s another portion that I appreciate most about Irwin’s monologuing, it’s his rumination on the future of Beckett and the future of “Waiting on Godot,” widely considered the most important work of the writer (or at least the most well-known).

The play says there must be bowler hats — Samuel Beckett even wrote it into the notes! But as he spoke with younger theater members, Irwin said he is taken aback a bit by their curiosity to reinterpret the play with other items of clothing — ball caps, trucker hats, etc. It’s their prerogative — the play will be in public domain one day and the Beckett estate won’t be able to have too much of a say over how theater troupes interpret the work. But Irwin still feels a duty to the artist –– a duty to what was drawn out on the page.

To me, that reads as less of a stranglehold on what is sacred and more of a comment on staying true to his own interpretation.

To him, they wear bowler hats and for 80 minutes an evening over the course of four days at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center, we’re all the better for it.

Find tickets at savannahrep.org.

Zach Dennis is the editor of the arts and culture section and weekly Do Savannah alt-weekly publication at the Savannah Morning News and can be reached at zdennis@savannahnow.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Review: Bill Irwin's 'On Beckett' is something unique and rarely seen in Savannah. Don't miss it.