Bill Irwin: Storyteller

Special Features   Bill Irwin: Storyteller Whether taking pratfalls or lobbing verbal assaults, Bill Irwin is a master at revealing the humanity at the heart of his characters.
Bill Irwin in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Bill Irwin in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo by Joan Marcus

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It's a long way from Mr. Noodle on "Sesame Street" to George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but Bill Irwin makes the journey look easy.

"It's telling a story," Irwin says, sitting in the Longacre Theatre, where he co-stars with Kathleen Turner in the critically hailed revival of Albee's classic directed by Anthony Page. The 1962 play about a college professor, his wife and their love-hate relationship unfolds in a harrowing long night's journey into uncertain day. "Yes, you have to use different muscles — different instincts have to be honed or blunted. But telling the story is my lifeline."

The play, Irwin says, is "incredible. A lot of strong, important plays might be very vital in their time and interesting to look at 40-45 years later but not necessarily come to life. This one you could hardly hold down. What surprises people is how funny and how visceral it is.

The more impassioned an actor gets about pursuing Edward's intentions, the harder the audience laughs." Albee, he says, "is an alchemist. If his scripts were to show up without his name on them at a regional theatre, the dramaturg would probably say, 'This is a talented guy, but we've got to get him to cut back.' He repeats himself. But an alchemic magic happens. You feel it onstage. There's mundane back and forth language, and then it will elevate — and then suddenly some storytelling revelation has taken place."

Irwin says that even in a play so full of words, the use of gesture is crucial. "Gesture is an essential storytelling act, and it helps audiences. You can overdo it, but that doesn't mean you don't need to pursue it. When I'm talking about something Martha has just said, it's essential to point to the place she was standing when she said it — because that concretizes it."

Irwin has been an actor, playwright, director, dancer, choreographer, performance artist and clown. His credits include Largely New York; Fool Moon; Waiting for Godot, with Steve Martin and Robin Williams; and his previous sojourn with Albee, the Tony-winning The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

What's next? Maybe a work with puppets, he says, or dance, or writing — or something completely different. "I've always wanted to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game — where they would be interested in a bit of a performance piece. Buster Keaton, a hero of mine, was a baseball fanatic."

He may get his wish. But right now, every night at the Longacre, he's already hitting a home run.

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