Bill Irwin Is Brilliant in ArtsEmerson’s Not-to-Be-Missed “On Beckett.”

Bill Irwin in “On Beckett” at ArtsEmerson

‘On Beckett’ — Conceived and Performed by Bill Irwin. Produced by Octopus Theatricals; Scenic Design by Charles Corcoran; Costume Consultation by Martha Hally; Lighting Design by Michael Gottlieb; Sound Design by M. Florian Staab. Presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston, MA through October 30.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Bill Irwin is a legendary actor, writer, director and clown artist. The Tony award-winner is as known for serious theatrical roles on Broadway as he is for his beloved Mr. Noodle on television’s “Elmo’s World.”

With “On Beckett,” his solo exploration of his decades long relationship with the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, Irwin takes on yet another role — that of compassionate guide through the sticky wickets of Beckett’s intimidating and often baffling prose and plays.“Here is what I am proposing to you this evening,” he tells the audience with an intimacy and earnestness that has them in the palm of his hand from the get-go. “I’m not a scholar or a biographer,” he says almost apologetically, implying that those who expect a pedantic lecture from the head will be disappointed. “I am an actor and a clown and what I have is an actor’s knowledge” of Beckett, he says. And what a trove of treasures that is.

What Irwin brings to the table and generously shares is of far greater value and infinitely more enjoyable than a straight out lecture. He discloses what it has been like for him to experience Beckett’s language from the inside out, as one who has been entrusted with the sacred task of memorizing the writer’s words, processing them through his Bill Irwin persona, and then speaking them to a contemporary audience as he imagines Beckett himself intended.

For an absorbing, enlightening and entertaining 90 minutes, Irwin shines his inner light on four works by Beckett: Texts for Nothing, Watt, The Unnamable and Waiting for Godot. He peppers his readings/performances with anecdotes and observations, revealing what it feels like as an actor and as a human being to mouth the words of the great existentialist and arguably the greatest playwright who ever penned a line of dialogue.

His approach blends the physical (often hilarious) and emotional as he digs deep into Beckett’s “character energy,” managing to keep the evening challenging enough for aficionados of the work and light enough for novices. “These are like people I’ve known. Like my own mind — me, myself and I in conversation,” he says, bringing Beckett’s often lofty language down to earth.

Which is not to say he doesn’t pose heady questions meant to expand our thinking about Beckett, ourselves and the world we live in. “Was Beckett a writer of the body or mind?” he asks. Midway through the enjoyable and impactful evening, Irwin addresses the elephant in the room. “Is this a portrait of existence?” he asks of a passage in The Unnameable. “What is it?”

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He then gives an easy-to-digest short treatise on existentialism, pithy and humorous, yet also the product of a deep thinker who has spent years pondering these questions both on and off stage. It is no surprise to learn he has won Fulbright, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts and MacArthur Fellowships. His explanations and analyses are brilliant. “These are the precise but undefinable questions that keep us awake,” he says before adding,” and put us to sleep.”

As expected of a lauded actor and director, his timing and punctuation is perfect. But Irwin is also a clown, and when he grabs his bowler and baggy pants, the evening shifts gears. Although Beckett’s words carry no less weight and Irwin’s performance embodies that gravitas, it is now clothed in the shimmering gossamer of physical comedy, taking the sting out of some of the words by allowing us to laugh at them and, by extension, at ourselves. Sure, existence is tough and death is even tougher, but let’s not forget that we were also created to laugh, Irwin reminds us.

Irwin appeared with Steve Martin and Robin Williams in the Lincoln Center Off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot in 1988, in the role of Lucky. Lucky’s only lines consist of a famous 500-word-long monologue, an ironic element for Irwin, since much of his clown-based stage work was silent.

He treats us to a remarkable rendition and, at the end of the show, frankly admits that even after all these years, some of Beckett’s language remains beyond his grasp. “I keep discovering new things in the words,” he says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know how an airplane stays up in the air either, but I still want to climb onboard.”

Act NOW and you might just be lucky enough to catch one of the last Boston performances. Whether you’re encountering the Nobel Prize winner’s writing for the first time, or building on a body of Beckett knowledge, this dynamic showcase is not to be missed.

ArtsEmerson’s One-of-A-Kind ‘An Iliad’ Is Not to Be Missed

Denis O’Hare in ArtsEmerson’s ‘An Iliad’ – Photo by Joan Marcus

By Shelley A. Sackett

“An Iliad,” the brilliant play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare in a lamentably short run at Emerson Paramount Center, is one phenomenal piece of theater. In a mere 100 minutes, on a simple stage with no props or costume changes, the virtuoso Denis O’Hare (with the help of bassist Eleonore Oppenheim) magically creates the story behind Homer’s epic poem about the tragic Trojan War. This is no ordinary dramatic experience. It is a magic carpet ride into the deepest power and charm that theater can offer. No wonder the painted muses above the magnificently renovated stage are all smiles. They know this audience is in for a one-of-a kind experience that will resonate long after their thunderous standing ovation finally fades.

As the house lights slowly dim, a near-deafening clang arises from a stage stacked with chairs. One beacon illuminates the narrator, clad in a Sam Spade-like trench coat and hat and carrying a suitcase. It’s as if he emerges from the belly of some post-apocalyptic landscape. He approaches the audience and with an intimacy and rapport that marks the entire production, he speaks directly to them. With a sorrowful weariness he says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.” He has been singing this same story for millennia: in Mycenae, in Babylon, in Gaul and now, in 21st century Boston. “It’s a good story,” he admits. That is the only understatement of the entire script. Peterson and O’Hare have written a firecracker version (hence, “An Iliad”) of Homer’s “Iliad” based on Robert Fagles’ renowned translation about the bloody story of the war between the Confederation of Greeks and Troy (located in Asia Minor or current Turkey).

In a nutshell, it all started when the Trojans stole Helen and ends with the Greeks getting her back (with a little help from that famed Trojan Horse). Along the way, we witness swords clattering, gods and goddesses interfering for malice and amusement, and several battles to the death. We also learn a lot of history and mythology (and, for the trained ear, a bit of classical Greek poetry). We meet Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, who has abducted Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s Trojan priests, and refuses to give her back. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, tries to no avail to persuade Agamemnon of his folly. Not until Apollo punishes the Greek armies with plagues does he finally relent and give her up. But no sooner is Apollo’s curse lifted than Agamemnon decides he deserves to be compensated for his sacrifice. That compensation is in the form of stealing Achilles’ concubine, a captured princess Achilles considers to be his bride.

Understandably, Achilles responds with epic rage and refuses to fight for Agamemnon and the Greek confederation. Without him, Agamemnon’s army is no match for the Trojans and their Achilles analog, Hector. After nine years of fruitless fighting, the Greeks are depressed and exhausted. “They’ve forgotten why they’re fighting. They just want to go home,” our narrator says. He pauses and solemnly faces the audience. “How do you know when it’s over?” he asks in a whisper.

The artistic depth and muscle of “An Iliad” lies in the way it connects ancient past to the political and linguistic vernacular of today. In a chatty, informal, almost stand-up-comic tone, the narrator compares the inability of the Greeks to give up and seek a truce to the exasperation and irrational stubbornness of someone who has waited for over 20 minutes in a supermarket line. “Do you switch lines now? No, goddam it, I’ve been here for 20 minutes, I’m gonna wait in this line. I’m not leaving ‘cause otherwise I’ve wasted my time,” the narrator says in a delivery reminiscent of the great Robin Williams, and suddenly the ancient Greek’s emotional dilemma is crystal clear.

Oppenheim’s music (how does she get all those sounds from a stand-up bass?) and Zeilinski’s dazzling lighting add enormous complexity and texture to the production as O’Hare stalks the bare stage, narrating the story, embodying his characters and time-traveling to the present to address his contemporary peers directly. He physically communicates the violence of war and the destruction it wreaks on the human body and psyche, embodying both Hector and Achilles in the play’s most wrenching scenes. With a bend of his nimble legs or a tilt of his head into a lone spotlight, he is magically transformed from Hector into his wife, Androcmache, in a tender scene where he credibly personifies and simultaneously embodies both.

The night belongs to this remarkably gifted and nimble actor, and those who miss it in Boston must make a New Year’s resolution to jump on a plane and catch its traveling production somewhere. It really is that good. For tickets and information, go to: https://artsemerson.org

‘An Iliad’ – Written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare; Directed by Lisa Peterson; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Marina Draghici; Lighting Design by Scott Zeilinski; Composer/Sound Design by Mark Bennett; Produced by Arts Emerson and Homer’s Coat in association with Octopus Theatricals at Emerson Paramount Center through November 24.