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Flash Review 2, 7-12: Two Puddles, a Mountain, and a Hole
Bill Irwin's Texts for Nothing

By Susan Maxwell
Copyright 2001 Susan Maxwell

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bill Irwin, a home-grown San Francisco pickle of the Pickle Family Circus, performs Samuel Beckett's "Texts for Nothing," produced by the American Conservatory Theater, through July 15. One thing's for certain: Irwin is brave. A one-man staging of Beckett's dense and circuitous existential prose pieces in the 1000-seat Geary Theater is nothing to sneeze at. But Irwin, trained as a physical comedian, eats up the space with impeccable comic timing and the intricacy of gesture. The stage set, by Douglas Stein, is pure Beckett: a mountain side, two puddles, a hole and lots of dirt. Bog and heath, heath and bog. The show opens with Irwin, dressed in hoboesque garb, sliding pell-mell down the side of the hill and trying unsuccessfully to scramble back where he came from. Seeing his predicament, he makes a few false starts at speech: "Suddenly. (pause) At long last. (pause) Oh that won't do..." then drops his head onto the dirt.

The four texts Irwin plays word for word to the original are selected from 13 texts Beckett wrote simultaneously with "Waiting for Godot." They wrestle with the dilemma of not being able to stay and at the same time not finding a reason to go anywhere else. The "anywhere" here is an anywhere of the mind and the soul and, as Irwin shows, of the body. An intense homelessness of the self struggles and side-winds and fidgets, radiating from his every limb. We see the words shudder out and get stuck in his body. We see his body change direction in the pause before he retracts what hes just said. Irwin's physical prowess forms a tide of physical erosion on stage to match his verbal uncertainty.

This dexterity also renders Irwin's character endearing, tortured and very familiar to us as he quotes Chaplin, Keaton and Harpo Marx. He lopes along with his neck jutting out. The backs of his hands are usually glued to his sides, a reversal of the normal posture of palms facing inward. This one visceral displacement has *such* repercussions. My audience member body registered it proverbially as some kind of injury, or something just deeply inside out. Irwin tries to stand constantly through the piece as a kind of choreographic refrain, but he attempts to get up using the tops of his feet, not the soles, and flounders like a confused bird.

The texts also wrestle with the mind/body split. Speaking of these two estranged partners, Irwin blurts out with matter of fact hilarity, "They are fond of one another, pity one another, but in the end can do nothing for one another. He desperately tells his mind to ssssh and leave his body alone to rest. He attempts to quietly lay his head on the pillow of dirt with such excruciating awkwardness, in prolonged fits and starts that it is a relief when he gives up and starts talking again. Irwin as Beckett's inner monologuist remains restless and unable to rest. which leaves no option but slow decay. He imagines himself as a "snotty old nipper" and acts out the part of an elderly amputee taking a piss and hacking up "gobs." While deep in thought he scratches his crotch. The body is a site of misery, end of story. And the voice keeps talking mainly to assure itself it isn't dead yet.

Although that demise surely is coming, which provides fodder for the next, or another conundrum in the text. (The language is so circular that it is difficult to figure out an actual series of events. One audience member exclaimed after the show, "I nodded off in parts but I swear I heard it all!" ) At some point, Irwin declares with unusual aplomb that if he could find a way to believe, the rest would come. Believe in what? God? A soul which outlasts the body? On stage, Irwin's body becomes a decaying landscape full of ticks and lurches, hoping to escape itself. In the same way, we watch Irwin (as Beckett)'s mind trying to escape the consequences of unbelief, and of living in what he (and much of modernity) takes as a random world playing itself out without end or meaning.

Just when the text becomes, well, monotonous, which Beckett most likely intended, Irwin adds another layer. Blackout and the lights come up on him sunk in the hole which he stepped in earlier, and he's off talking again. But as he talks we notice he's slowly descending deeper and deeper into the hole. Irwin doesn't seem to notice the urgency of things. But the whole tone changes, becomes more elegiac and less funny as we see him physically running out of time. At the last moment, up to his neck, Irwin looks around, registers realization and falls silent. He cranes his neck into the light in perhaps the one moment when he is finally at home, no longer displaced.

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