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Theatre in Review: Incantata (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Stanley Townsend. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

If nothing else, Incantata offers the opportunity to get acquainted with the fine Irish poet Paul Muldoon. A longtime resident of this country, he has been poetry editor of The New Yorker and is a faculty member at Princeton University. His work is richly allusive, yet accessible and filled with feeling. An elegy for the artist Mary Farl Powers, a former lover who died of cancer at 43, Incantata is an elegant act of mourning. One is not surprised to hear that Muldoon is a winner of the T.S. Eliot prize, for his writing is a cataract of allusions to high and low culture with personal references artfully woven in, creating a web of words in which to catch his grief.

For example, consider this passage: "Again and again you'd hold forth on your own version of Thomism, your own Summa/Theologiae that in everything there is an order/that the things of the world sing out in a great oratorio:/it was Thomism, though, tempered by La Nausée/by His Nibs Sam Bethicket/and by that Dublin thing, that an artist must walk down Baggott/Street wearing a hair-shirt under the shirt of Nessus." In a handful of lines, he ranges from Aquinas to Sartre to Beckett to the mythological poisoned shirt that killed Heracles, fitting in a catty comment about Dublin's cultural scene.

Or this: "I thought of the night Vladimir was explaining to all and sundry/the difference between geantrai and suantrai/and you remarked on how you used to have a crush/on Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry, and Vladimir went to brush/the ash off his sleeve with a legerdemain/that meant only one thing -- 'Why does he put up with this crap?' -- /and you weighed in with 'To live in a dustbin, eating scrap,/seemed to Nagg and Nell a most eminent domain'." Vladimir is both a pseudonym for a friend and a character from Waiting for Godot, and the two Irish words refer, respectively, to joyful music and a lullaby; they are made to share space with a vintage Hollywood star and his vehicle, based on a Sinclair Lewis novel about fraudulent revivalists, before the stanza returns to the elderly parent figures in Endgame, living out their last days in garbage cans. All of this is by way of saying that Muldoon has a knack for putting so much into tiny spaces; his lines fairly reverberate with meanings that are a pleasure to parse.

Which is another way of saying that reading Incantata is surely a rewarding experience, but experiencing it in a theatre is, at best, not optimum, even when an actor like Stanley Townsend, his voice as finely grained as desert sand, is delivering the words. The poem leaps, in quicksilver fashion, all over the place; as in the passages above, the references rain down, pulled from nearly everywhere. Reading it, one can take it in much more easily, reveling in the capaciousness of the poet's range of references. Coming at one from the stage, they form a helter-skelter march, difficult to grasp, impossible to savor.

Muldoon says in his program note that he draws on "a stanzaic form made popular by W. B. Yeats in several of his great public poems, including his elegy In Memory of Major Robert," adding that in writing it he experienced "an odd sense that it might be stadium-ready." Possibly, but Sam Yates' production, first seen at the Galway International Arts Festival, is impossibly busy, a festival of distractions that further frustrates any attempt at direct communication between actor and audience.

Possibly because Powers was a printmaker, Townsend, playing a character known only as Man, inhabits a forbidding little room -- a surround of concrete walls, designed by Rosanna Vize -- where he is practicing his art, which consists of cutting potatoes in half, cutting out mouth-shaped pieces, dipping the object in paint, and making a series of block prints on paper. We get a close-up view of this work via a tiny video camera aimed at his worktable. Later, it will be focused on Townsend, giving us enormous closeups of his unshaven face as he acts out the text. The actor is in constant motion, making his peculiar art, moving furniture pieces, prowling the stage, and, admittedly, giving an emotionally resonant reading of the text -- but the nonstop stage business is thoroughly undermining, and the actor is too often dwarfed by video images large enough to fill the upstage wall. Teho Teardo's original music provides further interference; the only music we need comes from Muldoon's words.

All of this onstage busywork doesn't totally defeat Muldoon's writing. Whole passages jump out, ready to take up permanent residence in one's brain. I particularly treasure his memory of "the Christ you drew for a Christmas card as a pupa in swaddling clothes," the notion of "Spinoza or Amelia Earhart, both of them going down, their engines on fire," or this recollection: "How little you were exercised by those tiresome literary intrigues/How you urged me to have no more truck/Than the Thane of Calder/With a fourth estate that professes itself to be 'égalitaire'/But wants only blood on the sand." Townsend is at his most moving when repeating certain passages ritualistically, almost like decades of the rosary, in an attempt to assuage his sorrow.

But, most of the time, all one gets are glimpses of something strange and beautiful yet irritatingly out of reach. The staging never allows one to get a sense of the poem's thrust, of the shape of the argument being made. It builds to a climax of sorts with an unnecessary coup de théâtre; it's a case of direction doing what words could better accomplish.

Paul Keogan's lighting is effective throughout and Sinéad Diskin's sound design has its moments, but this is something of a lost opportunity. Most likely, it will be best enjoyed by Muldoon's fans, although even they may find their pleasure intruded upon. The very title, Incantata, seems to summon the magical power of words; it's too bad that nobody involved trusted that. -- David Barbour

(27 February 2020)

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