Waiting for … everything: a couple of online shows for our time

Bill Irwin, On Beckett / In Screen, Irish Repertory Theater. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Irish Rep Online.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Waiting and wondering in the weird no-man’s land between past and present: that would be us, in late 2020.

Samuel Beckett is the playwright of choice for this moment.

If there ever was a time to ponder the paralyzing perplexities of existence…. Where the hell is Godot anyhow? Self-isolating?

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My Wednesday matinee (online natch) was watching a great clown shedding light on his life-long fascination with the Irish master of the existential crisis. Bill Irwin’s On Beckett / In Screen, is a live-streamed performance of his one-man show from the stage of the empty Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.

I remember seeing Irwin as one of Beckett’s tramps (Vladimir) with Nathan Lane as Estragon, on Broadway in Waiting For Godot a decade or so ago. The pair, two of the theatre’s most expert comic actors, were were brilliantly entertaining — there’s a word that doesn’t invariably attach to waiting around (under a tree, on a country road), day after day, for someone who’s never going to show up.

Anyhow, this digital show, available through Saturday at Irish Rep (reservations are free but required), is Irwin’s re-working for film of his award-winning Beckett show of 2018. And it seems to see into the heart of this COVID-ian world of ours, with its repetition of days and its time-obliterating loops.

It’s an actor’s view — not a philosopher’s or a literary prof’s — of Beckett, the diving in, the performing, the alternate possibilities of a scene. And I found it captivating. He discusses pronunciation (and the curiosity that after World War II, Beckett, who’d worked in the French Resistance, wrote in French not English). Should you say God-oh or Godeau? He wonders about hats, and Beckett’s instructions about bowlers. He explores the push-and-pull contradictions, the fits and starts, of Beckett’s language. “It seems to operate the way consciousness operates,” Irwin thinks.

And, armed with a bowler, a cane, a bowtie, a jacket, and baggy pants, he dips into Beckett’s Texts For Nothing of 1950, the 1953 novel Watt, and some of the most enigmatic and moving scenes in Waiting For Godot. And there’s the fun of Irwin’s memories of working with Lane, Robin Williams, Mike Nichols. Irwin’s inner clown, who has virtuoso chops, bites into the absurdity of the world. He can’t resist improvising with the cane.

The show is kind of a lecture, delivered in a humble spirit. And it’s kind of a demo. The feeling is this (from Texts For Nothing): “I can’t stay; I can’t go.” And then, “let’s see what happens next.”

The evening’s performance (online, natch) at our place was a (mostly) solo show, a film version Heidi Schreck’s Broadway hit What The Constitution Means To Me, available on Amazon Prime. If you get a chance to see it, jump at it.

The dry title will sound like dusty duty, especially in this chaotic election month. But this is a very unusual play (shortlisted for the Pulitzer and nominated for the the best new play Tony Award) that’s surprising in every way. It’s fierce, angry, and emotional; it’s full of jokes. And it’s animated by Schreck’s charm as a performer.

It starts from Schreck’s re-creation of her 15-year-old self, an eager debate champ who actually paid her way through college on prize money from American Legion competitions. And her infatuation with that famous document, and its storied 14th Amendment, is tempered in the intervening years by the knowledge, gathered in the history of her family and her own autobiography, that it protects the rights of white men — not the rights of everyone. Witness the travails of the abused women of her own family.

It ends with an actual debate about whether the Constitution is worth saving or should be scrapped; Schreck’s opponent is a powerhouse 14-year-old girl.

If anyone had told me in advance how engaging it would be to hear heated conversation about the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, I would have rolled my eyes and got out my Hamilton CDs instead. But like Bill Irwin’s Beckett show, it gains lustre from the darkness of the moment.   

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