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The clown prince is taking the king of gloom to clown school.

Tony-winning actor Bill Irwin, who has played Mr. Noodle on PBS' "Sesame Street" for a quarter-century and who is one of the preeminent mimes of his generation, believes that his favorite writer, Samuel Beckett, is misunderstood.

Beckett, Irwin insists, is not the prime exemplar of existential despair even if that's what most people may take away from his best-known works — "Waiting for Godot," "Endgame" and "Happy Days."

Instead, the writings of the Irish dramatist are suffused with hard-won hope. With extensive roles on such TV shows as "Northern Exposure," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," Irwin invites listeners to hear him out as he marries Beckett and baggy-pants comedy in his solo show, "On Beckett," now in previews at the Guthrie Theater.

"I'm forcing the connection between Beckett and clowning a little bit, but they've come to feel very authentic to me," Irwin said by phone from his home in New York. "There are natural touchpoints between the two, and Beckett's language just grabs me and won't let me alone."

Irwin has been celebrated for his stage performances, including opposite Robin Williams and Steve Martin in "Godot." Kathleen Turner was his scene partner in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," for which he won a Tony. Now he's devoting his life to a man whose works alternately infuriate and inspire him.

As he spoke about his show last week, he fretted about a real winter arriving in Minnesota.

"I'm a cold-weather wimp," he said. "On the other hand, I know that it means something bad for the climate for Minneapolis to be breaking these [temperature] records."

Bill Irwin displays both verbal and physical comedy in his portrayal of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett.
Bill Irwin displays both verbal and physical comedy in his portrayal of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett.

Craig Schwartz

Q: When did your obsession with Beckett start?

A: Fifty-five years ago. The first thing I ever read of his, totally by chance, was a little short play called "Act Without Words I." There are two of them. Now, I'm amazed to hear people say I'm a Beckett expert. I don't know about that. I'm a deep aficionado.

Q: Do you have a hard time squaring Beckett and mime work?

A: Beckett was born in 1906 and his is the first generation to come of age with motion pictures and early silent films. That's where the baggy-pants art really found its outlet — in those early films. Also, the Beckett family went to see vaudeville a lot. I think he had a thing for baggy-pants comedy.

Q: You spend much of the first half of the show in texts, but halfway through it changes gears.

A: I do some costume adjustments and some people go, "Wow, I couldn't wait until you put those baggy pants on." And others say, "I was perfectly happy with just the language before you put those baggy pants on." But it is a point in the evening that really grounds me.

Q: When the show premiered, the cast included a young person. How did it become a solo show?

A: I've done various versions over the years. I worked with a really young actor for the scene with the boy in "Waiting for Godot." In this version, it's just me. And there's a hole there that I miss. Well, not just me. Mr. Beckett is always present.

Q: When I hear you talk about Beckett, it reminds me of people quoting scripture.

A: It's like a catechism. You start with a passage and you say the words, and they mean huge things. But they are so different and mean something else every time you say them.

Bill Irwin says sometimes he gets impatient with Samuel Beckett's writing but then the very next day he's riveted by it. In "On Beckett," Irwin says he tries to zero in on that.
Bill Irwin says sometimes he gets impatient with Samuel Beckett's writing but then the very next day he's riveted by it. In "On Beckett," Irwin says he tries to zero in on that.

Craig Schwartz

Q: Can you tell us what to expect at the Guthrie?

A: At the top of the evening, I share some passages from his writings, and some thoughts of having lived with this language. It's concise — 90 minutes — and that brevity helps to make it valuable and useful to an audience.

Q: We are familiar with his plays. But you also look at his fiction.

A: Somewhere along the line, 30 to 40 years ago, I tripped into his prose works which, to many of us actors, feels like exquisite monologue work.

Q: Your love of Beckett is pretty complicated, isn't it?

A: Sometimes I ask myself why, at this stage of my life, am I spending this much time with joy and anguish over one writer's writing. I get impatient with his writing sometimes. But then the next day I pick it up again and cannot put it down. Or sometimes I just read one page over and over and over again because there's something in the language that absolutely haunts me. I do my best in "On Beckett" to zero in on that.

Q: Do you have the same conflicts about "Godot," Beckett's masterwork?

A: It's chilling when these two lead characters talk. And their talk is both meandering and absolutely driven. But then the other two characters enter and one is driving the other at the end of a rope and you realize, whoa. There's a theater image you only get once in a generation. Beckett's has boiled it all down to one guy driving another guy by means of a rope and a whip. It's a very stark, strong metaphor.

Q: What does Beckett mean for us today in the age of TikTok?

A: He's pithy and concise and quotable. But I suppose the best measure of his hipness, if you will, is the Instagram page, where there are images of cats married to Samuel Beckett quotes.

'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