There is no better word than "mothing" to describe the set in Bill Irwin's Texts for Nothing. Irwin dramatizes four of Samuel Beckett's prose pieces on a barren, Godot-style mound of loose dirt and weeds. Sloping from the rafters is a steep, vulvalike gully, "scooped deep by the rains," that serves as an entryway for Irwin's hapless tramp. First a bucketful of dirt comes down the gully. Then more dirt. Then Irwin slides down, legs flailing, holding his homburg, and scrabbles in the soil until he regains his feet and tries to climb back up. This has the immediate effect of smudging his clothes, so he looks like one of Beckett's tramps. It's also, of course, symbolic. Irwin scrambles and backslides, then tumbles again; he tries one more time, and fails. The first half-minute of Texts for Nothing is Beckett in miniature, and Irwin hasn't even spoken a line.
On the surface, Beckett's stories and Bill Irwin seem mismatched. Irwin is a brilliant physical actor and Pickle Family Circus alumnus who developed the wordless clown play Fool Moon eight years ago with David Shiner. The original Texts for Nothing is a series of 13 limpid stories in the style of Beckett's novels, say, Murphy or Molloy, narrated by eloquent, near-hopeless voices in a bleakly Irish landscape. The voices muse about age, birth, and death, about struggle and lying still. They sometimes recall memories of a distant home, but they never, or almost never, do anything. It seems crazy to adapt this material for the stage. But Irwin has noticed that all the action in Beckett lies in the language itself, and he's focused his impressive body-talent on evoking each polished word. The result is plotless, mystifying, sometimes tedious, but also musical and sublime. Leaving Texts for Nothing is like waking from a vivid dream.
The scenery (by Douglas Stein) gives the stories dramatic shape. Irwin has adapted four stories from Texts, Nos. 1, 9, 11, and 13, which all deal obscurely with struggle, but the only visible suspense derives from Irwin's attempts to clamber up the gully now and then. You start to wonder if he'll make it. Getting up the gully becomes a theme of the show, and Irwin plays with this expectation brilliantly.
He has a gaunt, rubbery face and tromps around the set on stiff legs, sliding sometimes on a rock or sinking knee-deep into a hole. With his hat on, Irwin looks like Beckett playing his own typical character. "Oh, how can I go on?" he says, after another failed sally up the trough. "I shouldn't have begun. [Falls to his knees.] But I had to begin. [Gets up.]" When his hat rolls off, we see a tuft of hair near the front of an otherwise bald head, and Irwin looks not like Beckett but like a dangerous drifter, maybe Robert De Niro near the end of Taxi Driver -- some criminal-minded psychotic with a frustrated mohawk. Irwin delivers his lines in a mechanical tone that changes abruptly, as if the narrator of these Texts had two voices, or three, battling for control in his mind.
I don't read Beckett as mechanical. I realize people find him cold, but to me it's a mellifluous, human coldness, not mechanical so much as detached. So Irwin's tone irritated me after an hour. But he supports the angular voices with angular stumbling-around, and his overall control is undeniable: Irwin has found a way through the stories that touches their hypnotic source.
Texts for Nothing will bore and perplex a lot of people; a handful of subscribers walked out on opening night. The sin against convention in this show is treating language as sculpture, not as a medium for telling a story so much as an object in itself, to be commented on (and finally vanquished) by what happens to Irwin. A character in a Philip Roth novel once observed that Waiting for Godot was just a normal day in the life of a writer -- "Except you don't get Lucky and Pozzo" -- and Texts for Nothing is no different. It's about one tramp, alone, trying to crawl back to the bosom of mothing.