A Low-Rent Hamlet: Bill Irwin's Scapin

A Low-Rent Hamlet: Bill Irwin's Scapin It is to be believed that Moliere never heard of a moose named Bullwinkle. The noted French dramatist will have that experience if he goes to the Bill Irwin Scapin at the Roundabout Company's Laura Pels Theatre, at least if the line about Bullwinkle stays in. With Bill Irwin, you never know. The last couple of times Irwin was in town he and David Shiner as the fools of Broadway's Fool Moon things changed, collapsing the audience in happy hysteria, from night to night.

It is to be believed that Moliere never heard of a moose named Bullwinkle. The noted French dramatist will have that experience if he goes to the Bill Irwin Scapin at the Roundabout Company's Laura Pels Theatre, at least if the line about Bullwinkle stays in. With Bill Irwin, you never know. The last couple of times Irwin was in town he and David Shiner as the fools of Broadway's Fool Moon things changed, collapsing the audience in happy hysteria, from night to night.

Of course that one didn't have a script a script with words, dialogue because the brilliant show (brilliant even to haters of mime) had no words. Scapin has words, French words by Mr. Moliere translated into English by poet-playwright-humorist Mark O'Donnell and then adapted by Irwin and O'Donnell. The two men met five years ago at Seattle Rep, when Irwin was an actor/director-in-residence there. They continued working on their adaptation of Scapin by long distance when Irwin was in New York for Fool Moon.

"We did a lot of mailing and faxing back and forth." says Irwin, "to get something that would make Seattle Rep believe we could do this. For a while in early '94 I was down in El Paso with my wife and son, so I communed with Moliere there in El Paso, Texas, while Mark translated straight from the 1671 French, until we finally had a completed script."

Between the two of you. The three of you, counting Moliere.

"Yes, we let him in on it."

Irwin is also the director of the Scapin at the Pels. Triple-threat man: director, star, co-adapter.

"Oh, yeah," he says, a few days before the start of previews, sitting amid a welter of trunks, properties, blueprints of the set by Douglas Stein, musical apparatus, coffee cups. "Three hats."

His first crack at Moliere had been as Argan, the Imaginary Invalid, back in high school. "You know, Moliere" -- Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673 -- "spent his whole life in the theatre. Scapin is in many ways a play about the theatre. It's one of the reasons I'm doing it. There are lines in it like a father saying: 'Here comes my son, as if on cue.' And we borrowed a wonderful line from the next play he dashed off, La comtesse d'Escarbagnas: "On the contrary, Madam, a comedy requires this sort of thing." Very Pirandellesque, no?

"It is!" exclaimed Irwin. Born 46 years ago in Santa Monica, California, raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Southern California, Bill Irwin is a compact, muscular figure with short brown hair, blue eyes, deep smile lines, a soft, agreeable voice, surprisingly large strong hands. Even his exclamations are mild and polite.

An early draft by Irwin and O'Donnell "was a lot more freewheeling than this one. We've reworked it to make a better fit with Moliere's intentions." That may be, but out of the most recent script there pop names like Ellen Stewart and her La MaMa, Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Wolfe, Disney, Bullwinkle, Jerry Zaks, David Shiner and, ahem, Bill Irwin.

Scapin last notably embodied in these parts by Jim Dale in 1974, as the Italianate and athletic Scapino is, of course, a rogue among rogues, scamp among scamps, one of the theatre's great amoral, irreverent servants.

"I suppose you could say that in a way he's a low-rent Hamlet," said the man who now steps into tiptoes boldly into Scapin's footsteps. "Hamlet in a farce. He's not the Prince; he's not the hero. He's a coward though unlike Hamlet, he's not afraid of action; he dives into action. And like Hamlet, he loves to act. You might say he's somewhere between Hamlet and Phil Silvers."

Moliere's Scapin is also an incurable liar, saying things off the cuff "until after a while he can't remember what's the truth, what's a lie. He makes something up and then keeps chasing it throughout the play." There in the rehearsal room, Irwin freelanced Scapin trying to catch up to a lie that kept expanding and proliferating the more he tried to grasp it and fix it.

William Irwin who cringes at the "William" is oldest of the three children of Horace Irwin, aerospace engineer- turned-set designer in retirement, and Elizabeth Irwin, real-estate saleswoman- turned-freelance writer and columnist for the Mendecino, California, local newspaper. Their son Bill spent a year as an exchange student in Belfast, Northern Ireland; his roots are half north, half south of the Six Counties border. He's a graduate in theatre arts from Oberlin College, Ohio, a graduate in lions and tigers and oh my from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's Clown College in Venice, Florida.

In 1984 he was lightning-bolted from out of the blue with the MacArthur Award that enabled him to come to New York and create Largely New York and The Regard of Flight, prize-winning shows both. In 1990 he was, as Lucky, the best thing, to this observer's mind, in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot directed by Mike Nichols at Lincoln Center. And in 1992 Irwin and David Shiner, who had only recently met, were cast as clowns in the Sam Shepard film Silent Tongues "so we had to think up some clown business," which ultimately flowered into Fool Moon.

Irwin met his wife, Martha Roth, actress-turned-nurse midwife, when he went to her for treatment of a stiff neck. They've lately moved to Nyack, N.Y. Their son Santos Patrick Morales Irwin is now six years old, and not yet an actor, one supposes.

"Truly! He's an incredible actor," said the man who would be Scapin, and that's no lie.

-- By Jerry Tallmer