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Dancing on the Razor’s Edge

May 17, 2011

In much of the new work I’m seeing, especially for the theatre, preposterous exaggeration seems to be the rule. Many writers seem to believe that the mainstream realistic tradition, loose as it may be, can’t convey the absurd cruelties of our world. So we get blood sprayed all over the stage in a grotesque parody of violence. Or wildly implausible plots, such as the one in which a former Guantanamo prisoner tracks down his ex-interrogator to demand half of her liver.

Most such work, however clever it may be, leaves me cold, or at best tepid. There’s little warmth in my heart for the characters, who often aren’t human enough to care about. The themes have less subtlety than Philadelphia politics.

Western literature has plenty of strong anti-realist precedents to draw on, including recent practitioners like Albee and Stoppard, and revivals of Ionesco or Beckett can still seem fresh and vital. So I’m wondering, what is it that makes some such work provocative, interesting, magical and other stuff just weird and off-putting?

One recent production offers a clue: Inis Nua’s version of Dublin by Lamplight, a play by Michael West written in 2004 to mark the centennial of the Abbey Theatre. Set in 1904, the year it mock-celebrates, the play features characters who are takeoffs on W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and other landmark figures in the Irish cultural/political revival. The main plot, a melodrama, centers on the attempt to found the “Irish National Theatre of Ireland,” a redundantly named group whose first play will be a heroic melodrama about the mythical Irish hero Cúchulainn. Most of the characters fit stereotypes, such as the wardrobe assistant who yearns to be a star and the drunken actor who wants to blow up the British king.

Inis Nua’s staging, modeled on the original version developed by the author and collaborators at Corn Exchange Theatre Company in Dublin, is as exaggeratedly nonrealistic as anything else I’ve seen. The actors wear painted whiteface masks with grotesque features. They move in a jerky, staccato manner, and when one speaks, the others snap their heads toward the speaker like puppets on strings. In addition to overplaying all their emotions, the characters describe to the audience what they are doing and feeling.

The original director at Corn Exchange, Annie Ryan, is known for her commedia dell’arte style, and in Tom Reing’s version at Inis Nua many other influences could be pointed out: vaudeville, kabuki, physical theatre, “metatheatre,” Charlie Chaplin, you name it.

These techniques are played for broad comedy, and the script is indeed hilarious—lots of one-liners, not to mention the ludicrousness of the plot lines. Even with no more than a rudimentary knowledge of Irish history, the audience understands the satire on a romanticized, pretentious, knee-jerk, and ultimately violent form of nationalism.

If it stopped there, the play would be a reasonable success in a Brechtian way. The audience, fully conscious of the actors as actors and the play as an artifice, gets the intellectual point. And yet this work manages something more. After all the farce and ridiculous melodrama, the bomb goes off, the police retaliate, and it turns out that the wrong people are killed. As the Sunday Independent put it in reviewing the Corn Exchange production, “The laughter is effectively and sharply choked into silence, the actors’ white faces, clown mouths, and marionette movements serving only to heighten the sense of loss and futile violence.”

I came away feeling the play’s meaning as much as thinking it, and I could tell that most others in the audience did the same. How was that possible when we had been kept so deliberately at an emotional distance?

I can pick out a few possible reasons: (1) Because the play was so funny, the audience was hanging on every line; even if we were “alienated” in a Brechtian sense, we were mega-attentive. (2) Audiences have become accustomed to rapid switches between comedy and tragedy, as in the evening news. (3) The real tragedy dawned in one fine moment, almost understated; no fake blood splashed around the stage. (4) One character who died—I won’t say who it was—was actually, in spite of all the stylization and stereotyping, rather likeable as an individual, although I didn’t realize this until the body hit the boards.

“The mantra of Corn Exchange,” says Tom Reing in a video clip, is that “you have to dance on a razor’s edge between the grotesque, the heartfelt, and anything-for-a-cheap-gag. That makes it limitless.” Yeah, and that dance suits an age when reality seems inconceivable and our best heroes come from comic books. But if you don’t get the dance steps just right, the “limitless” turns into the merely ludicrous or gruesome. All those involved in Dublin by Lamplight, from the original creators to the new American troupe, deserve a tip of Charlie Chaplin’s absurd little hat.

Though the run in Philadelphia has ended, Inis Nua will remount Dublin by Lamplight in New York at the First Irish Festival in September.

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