Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

On Beckett
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of In the Green, Hells Canyon and Wine in the Wilderness

Bill Irwin
Photo by Craig Schwartz
I feel fairly confident in saying that Samuel Beckett was an unqualified genius whose plays, such as Endgame, Happy Days, and especially Waiting for Godot, are gifts to the ages. Perhaps not on the same plane, though I don't know how such things are calibrated, I now attest that Bill Irwin is also a genius. Irwin has brought his touring show, On Beckett, to the Guthrie. On Beckett is a one-man show in which Irwin performs excerpts from the work of Samuel Beckett, interspersed with stories about Beckett and about the space that the playwright's work inhabits within the actor's mind and heart. It is a spectacular opportunity to witness the genius of both men, Beckett and Irwin, and anyone who loves the language of theatre must grab a ticket.

Irwin is extraordinarily versatile. He has won two Tony Awards, one for the vaudevillian clown show Fool Moon, which he created with David Shiner and Nancy Harrington, the other as "Best Actor in a Play" in no less an opus than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He has played Mr. Noodle on "Sesame Street" since 1998, along with many other TV roles, appeared in numerous movies–most recently Rustin–and his work on stage has ranged from King Lear to the dad who sings "Kids" in a Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie. He is also an accomplished director and choreographer. But with all those impressive credits, it seems, based on the evidence at the Guthrie, that his heart has been especially taken by the work of Samuel Beckett, whose plays allow Irwin to combine his love of clowning with his love for precisely coined language.

During On Beckett, Irwin enacts curated snippets from Beckett's work, including Waiting for Godot, the novels "Watt" and "The Unnamable," and "Texts for Nothing," a set of prose pieces that convey neither story nor character, but ramblings of interior monologue. In spite of that off-putting description, they are mesmerizing–at least as brought to life by Irwin. The are all wondrous to behold, but if I must pick out a favorite it would be the excerpt from the monstrous monologue delivered by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Irwin enacts each morsel of the writer's texts with his resonant voice as well is his body, employing the movement vocabulary of a clown (Irwin spent a year at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College after graduating from Oberlin), along with an incisive use of stagecraft and design.

That craft and design includes his spare costuming, beginning with dark trousers and suit jacket, with a button-down shirt open at the neck, which he augments along the way with a red bow tie, baggy pants, baggier pants (he calls them "industrial strength baggy"), and a collection of hats, particularly bowlers. Martha Halley is credited as costume consultant. Irwin incorporates a tutorial on the language of hats into the show, demonstrating how the tip of a hat one way or another can each create a different character. He also illustrates the effect of baggy pants on an actor's movement and on the impression the actor makes on an audience.

Then there is the brilliant lighting (designed by Michael Gottlieb), especially in its use of shadows, that acts as a scene partner to the actor. The set, designed by Charles Corcoran, is bluntly simple: One upright, dark slab is used primarily as a lectern, sometimes as a hiding place, while another, vertical slab serves as bench and a platform, and also a hiding place. A couple of modest props, such as a cane and a wayward microphone, and M. Florian Staab's crisp sound design complete the assemblage of stagecraft, and collectively make a case that, in the right hands, less can be so much more.

In addition to the excerpts from Beckett's work, Irwin shares his experiences figuring out how to approach the work, without hesitating to drop the names of some of his famous costars on stage, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Steve Martin, and F. Murray Abraham among them. Irwin offers some biographical information on Beckett–whom he refers to throughout as "Mr. Beckett," which has a most endearing effect–such as the Beckett family's custom of visiting vaudeville theaters on the weekend, of Beckett's early years in the employ of James Joyce, and his relocation to France, though he always remained every bit an Irishman.

I will never forget what Irwin had to say about the two different ways in which "Godot" is pronounced, depending on which side of the Atlantic one stands. We are also treated to several samples of Irwin's clowning finesse, which blends grace, wit, nonsense and humanity. I marveled at how a man the same age as me (actually, he is a year older) remains so limber and agile.

"Wow," I kept thinking, "This man on stage knows so much, does so much so very well, and is such splendidly good company." Ninety minutes flew by and I could easily have sat through another ninety. It is apparent that On Beckett is a labor of Love for Bill Irwin, and that he is nourishing his own psyche by sharing his love for Beckett, for clowning, for language, and for theater. The show is an absolute joy.

On Beckett runs through March 24, 2024, at Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit

Conceived and Directed by: Bill Irwin; All text readings by Samuel Becket; Scenic Designer: Charlie Corcoran; Costume Consultant: Martha Hally; Lighting Designer: Michael Gottlieb; Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab; Tour Production Manager: Luner Eclipse Productions; Stage Manager: Lisa McGinn.

Cast: Bill Irwin