Times Staff Writer

Low-key, blond, muscular--reminiscent of a laid-back California surfer--Bill Irwin stepped out of the La Jolla Playhouse rehearsal of Bertolt Brecht's "A Man's a Man" to talk about what it's like playing its protagonist, Galy Gay.

"Galy--we're pronouncing it galley--is not a likable or lovable character entirely," he said about the meek little man who leaves home one morning on an errand, is drawn by a trio of carousing soldiers into impersonating their missing comrade and eventually becomes a bloodthirsty army hero.

Irwin, who as a native of Santa Monica has a "strain of beach life in me," says he brought his swim fins to La Jolla but hasn't had much time on the beach--too busy with the play, and "discovering Mr. Brecht."

In person, Irwin couldn't be more of a contrast to the character he portrays in his own earlier stage show, "The Regard of Flight," wherein he conjures an amazing clown figure: a harassed, baggy-pants persona, apparently with the ability to defy gravity. ("Flight" played the Taper, Too in 1983 and was taped by PBS for "Great Performances.")

Through his work, Irwin has so extended the realm of the clown/mime tradition, once defined by Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau, that the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago gave him its so-called "genius award" grant for his inspired innovations, making him the first performer to receive one. But Irwin makes it clear he is not only a clown.

"I think of myself as an actor. Not everybody does; it depends on when we met. But I learned (my acting) instincts first." In fact, he came to the Brecht role from a Broadway run in "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."

As Irwin remembers, the Playhouse called him with a fairly outlandish idea to do a little-known Brecht play that seemed to have been written with clowns in mind. After reading the script, Irwin didn't understand the play but chose to go ahead anyway.

"That's one of the great things about the La Jolla scene: You feel you can come here to take a chance. It's really necessary to keep taking a chance."

The real mystery was his role. Character or clown figure?

"I read more about Brecht and realized it sits amazingly between the two. But you learn when you take on a Brecht role that it's never quite like taking on any other. All the roles in the play call for actors who are also entertainers at a certain level. So we have a bevy of entertainers in that rehearsal hall."

Brecht's attitude toward empathy also was new to Irwin.

"He keeps criticizing the theater of his day for being so hung up on empathy. One of the things that challenges me is not to think purely in terms of empathy and identification. As a clown, that's my stock in trade. I always had a knack for knowing how an audience feels about something like falling down. This (character) is a whole different sort of thing.

"Galy Gay seems to have a notion about himself not unlike most of us in America. There's this dreamer's idea that I'm a little better than anybody else and Galy Gay carries it around with him. It's a cruel dream: If I could get the right invention, be in the right place at the right time, I could make a lot of money. It doesn't do to dream about making something solid, having a family; you've got to dream about a real-estate empire."

Brecht based "A Man's a Man" on Kipling's "Barrack Room Ballads," setting it in India in the mid-1920s. The La Jolla production may look like India one moment, Irwin said, and somewhere else the next. That's the choice of director Robert Woodruff, best known in Los Angeles for his staging of the Mark Taper Forum's "In the Belly of the Beast."

"Woodruff's approaching it very courageously but with a certain kind of offbeat wisdom, too," Irwin said. "In a certain way, it's like careening downhill with the play. It can be quite wild."

Although "A Man's a Man" has its didactic moments, along with sections of blatant melodrama, Irwin sees it--particularly this production--as filled with comedy.

"This is a very funny--I think, I hope--play. We're doing funny things that reveal human foibles. But it's not pretty/funny; it's dark as well. We'll see where the laughs come--and if they come."

It's also highly physical, but Irwin doesn't know for sure how much of his style of clowning will end up in it. "There are so many words, it's like Shakespeare--you've got to keep saying them, and saying them fast, otherwise you don't get through them all in a night."

Irwin hasn't yet adjusted to his MacArthur grant of more than $176,000, arriving in monthly tax-free payments over a five-year period. The purpose behind the grants is to provide exceptional individuals time to concentrate on their field of expertise unhampered by financial concerns.

"It's still a struggle with continuing confusion and dismay. I've grown dependent on the money. It's what makes coming here this summer possible, for instance. I sit with people in the cast--really competent, brilliant people--and realize that, on their day off, some of them have to zip up to L. A. to audition for this or that TV movie."

Meanwhile, Irwin has been mulling over a show on the life of the 19th-Century clown George Fox.

"My first impulse was to tell the story very sympathetically. But after doing this play, I realize you might take a kind of Brechtian view of this man's life. Brecht's way of looking at things from a point of view of social relationships really deepens the other work I'll do from here on out."

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