Bill Irwin insists he's not a social media maven, or even hip to what's trending on the interwebs. But in "On Beckett," he's doing a quintessential social media play — sharing his most private predilections with anyone who cares to listen.

And the 90-minute one-act play, now up through March 24 at the Guthrie Theater, offers evidence of a kind of Jedi mind meld between the notable actor and his haunting muse — celebrated playwright Samuel Beckett.

Part lecture, part interpretive clown dance, "On Beckett" is surprisingly entertaining. And it brings new perspective to the brooding works of a doyen of darkness.

Winner of a Tony for his performance in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," Irwin is best known for TV roles, including playing the clown Mr. Noodle for a quarter-century on "Sesame Street."

In his stage show, he explains that for decades he's had voices knocking about his head. They all ring out from Beckett's oeuvre — prose pieces, monologues and dialogues from such plays as "Endgame" and "Waiting for Godot," which he has acted in half a dozen times.

These voices course even now through the actor's body and compel it to do unexpected things onstage. At the Guthrie, he puts his feet on the lectern. Sometimes he slowly slinks and rises behind a podium, as if going down and up an elevator. Other times, he lets his knees go all wobbly, intimating a Chaplin-esque duckwalk. Then he swings a cane like a golf club.

A septuagenarian, Irwin is as limber as performers decades younger. And he's putting on a tour de force turn in "On Beckett" as he tries to expiate a lifelong obsession with the bleak author.

Our understanding of Beckett is all wrong, Irwin insists. The severe Irishman who wrote in French and then translated his work back into English is not, as we understand him, the doyen of existential despair.


Beckett, in this telling, may not be a funny and fun-loving guy, but he's full of unexpected light and levity.

Irwin's primary physical language comes from the circus arts, and in the show, he juxtaposes excerpts of Beckett's works with clown bits featuring bowler hats and red noses and huge baggy pants that he puts on and then sheds.

The emotional undertones in Beckett's works support all of that play, Irwin tells us.

It would seem like a lot of baggage for Beckett's already heavy work. But somehow, through Irwin's charm and wit and the mixing of the comic with the catastrophic, it holds our attention.

Whether or not you're convinced of the truth of Irwin's juxtaposition is almost beside the point. As we leave the theater, we can imagine Beckett, at least for a fleeting moment, as a jolly figure in a silent film taking clown steps away from a blob of darkness.

"The end of life is always vivifying," Beckett said. We might as well trip into the light as we make our way to eternity.

'On Beckett'

Who: Conceived and performed by Bill Irwin.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends March 24.

Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.

Tickets: $29-$82. 612-377-2224 or