In the first five minutes of Texts for Nothing, currently playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Bill Irwin perfectly encapsulates the entire Beckett existential quandary of the meaningless journey/wait that is life. Like a modern day Alice turned Sisyphus, Irwin takes stage by falling through a hole and down the hill set designer Douglas Stein has masterfully created. For the next five minutes or so, Irwin's quest to dig himself out of the hole and his attempt to impose order by ridding himself of the dirt and mud life/the decent has imposed on him are hysterical.
Unfortunately, when Irwin starts talking the show quickly becomes as messy as the dirt and mud filled set. This is not to imply that Irwin, largely known for his physical (and often times silent) comedy is not as adept at acting with words as he is with movement, as he has proven himself to be as dexterous with words as he is with his finely tuned body. However, in Texts For Nothing Between, his body oftentimes gets in the way of the text, which, when combined with assorted other problems inherent in the piece, makes for a largely incomprehensible evening.
The greatest stumbling block in the piece may simply be that it was never meant to be staged. Written in 1950 while Beckett mourned his mother's decline and death from Parkinson's, Texts For Nothing is a series of rambling, stream of consciousness treatises on reality, mortality, and various other existential angsts. On paper, these musings act as a philosophical Rorschach test, bringing to light one's own psyche and ideology. On stage, the pieces get shoehorned into what the performer decides is the overall shape, which may not correlate with the viewers' impressions.
By setting the show in such a concrete arena (a literal hill that must be overcome and conquered), the pieces are defined even more specifically, and thus get reduced further. Perhaps if Irwin (who directed and adapted the piece as well) had set the show on a blank stage, thus allowing the audience to form their own mental imagery, the show would have worked better as well.
However, given the performance style Irwin chose for the piece, full communication may not have been possible in any event. Due to his stylistic line delivery full of odd and distracting emphasis, his overall lack of projection making it hard to even hear the words, and his annoying habit of trying to impose humorous pun-filled meanings (which oftentimes run counter to the emotional picture he is painting and thus inspire knee-jerk laughs) the show is incredibly hard to follow and concentrate on. When Irwin simply states the words naturalistically and without moving, it is as if a firework of meaning bursts on the stage (which, unfortunately, soon dimms and dies). Those moments of brilliant insight make the piece all the more frustrating, as they give a brief flash of meaning and insight, thus further illustrating the overall murkiness that makes up the majority of the piece.
Texts For Nothing runs through May 26th at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information or for tickets, visit www.seattlerep.org.
Photo: Dixie Sheridan