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Theatre in Review: The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Zoë Watkins. John Keating, Laiosa Sexton. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In case you're wondering what the Irish Rep is doing producing a play with such an exotic title, let me explain: The pigeon is Eddie the Pigeon, a rather peculiar fellow who lives in the Taj Mahal, a trailer park not too far from Limerick. If Ireland is notable for its eccentrics, Eddie belongs to the top one percent of oddness. For one thing, he tends to repeat certain phrases endlessly, many of which are taken from his idol, Elvis Presley. (The play is set in the present day.) For another, he can't stop talking: The first section of the play consists of Eddie running off at the mouth on all manner of topics. Topic A is his "mammy," another Elvis fan, who is no longer alive; he keeps her teeth in the cupboard as a memento. He also keeps adding, enigmatically, "The smell. You never forget the smell."

Also, Eddie says, the Taj Mahal "was the premiere mobile home site of its kind, in its day," adding that the owner, a widow named Peggy Bean, "went around barefoot, sure she was half-cracked with only the one eye." He adds that the park "was built on an old fairy fort. Peggy was taken on occasion into the hill beyond. That's where she lost her shoes, got her humpback, and was blinded." Peggy, it seems, always wanted to visit India one day, a dream that was scuttled when she fell into a fishing hole and died.

The oddest thing about Eddie is his inability to pick up cues from other people. He says all of the above, and a great deal more, to the young woman he has discovered passed out in front of his trailer. He's aware that she can't hear him, but it doesn't inhibit his conversation. He names her Friday, for that is the night when the play takes place. And off he goes with several more pages' worth of seemingly unrelated thoughts.

Is Eddie on the autism spectrum? (He seems to like little rituals.) Is he psychotic? (Probably not; he apparently works as a security guard at the park.) Is he daft -- that all-purpose Anglo-Irish word that can be roughly translated as different in ways that can't easily be explained? You'll have to decide for yourself, if you choose to see The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal. One thing is indisputable: The play's early scenes constitute a bruising acting challenge and John Keating, that curly-haired beanpole with eyebrows like commas turned sideways and a chin and nose that come to sharp endpoints, handles it like a master. That the play doesn't instantly feel interminable is entirely due to his tremendous skill.

Friday -- the play begins with her being dumped outside Eddie's trailer by a male brute -- is really named Lolly, and the reason she is so much the worse for wear is that she has been celebrating at her own bachelorette party. Eddie tells her she looks like "a swan in a dirty lake," although, as dressed by Martha Hally in a limp, beaten-up tutu, a sad little tiara, pink T-shirt, garters, and towering platform heels, her face covered in layers of makeup, her hair loaded with extensions in mismatched colors -- and with an enormous bruise on one leg -- she looks like a cross between a streetwalker and a duck left outside in a rainstorm.

Even accounting for the effects of liquor, Lolly isn't too bright. Upon waking up and learning that she is at the Taj Mahal, she howls, "The fuck am I doin' in India?" Initially terrified of Eddie, she is hostile and aggressive, threatening to chop off his fingers and fry them up like sausages, but this only cues another run-on monologue from Eddie, about Elvis' fondness for jam. Indeed, he simply goes on, chattering away, serving her tea (his mother, he notes, could make a single teabag last an entire week), and trying to guess her zodiac sign.

When she settles down, Lolly goes on at length about her impending wedding to Josie, which, among other things, includes a 22-foot-long Hummer ("I'll be in the church and the veil still be in the Hummer," a "fuschia pink cake, nine stories high," and a pair of doves, dyed pink "to match the Hummer, like.") As for how they are financing the entire affair, including three weeks in the Turks and Caicos, she adds, "We're putting it on the Visa -- Fuck it, like!" We soon realize that, even if the details of the wedding are real -- she has left Josie at the altar before, and, due to pending charges, he may well be in jail on the day of the ceremony -- she is pathetic, a dim, booze-addled waif in an abusive relationship with a thug.

The playwright, Laoisa Sexton, has a gift for creating harrowingly vivid characters, but she overloads them with tics. Lolly has a way of adding the word "like" multiple times to each sentence, a habit that grates, and Eddie's repetitions become, well, repetitive. Worse, there is no real possibility of anything happening between these two lost souls; a jar of poteen is produced and they run off at the mouth, inhabiting their own private worlds. When they do take notice of each other, the results are painfully silly: Lolly mistakes him for a perverted Catholic priest, then asks, "D'you want to finger me, is that it?" There's also some discussion of her "pink mallows," and I leave it to you to figure out to which part of her anatomy this refers.

And so it goes, in a tidal wave of conversation, most of it colorful, none of it going anywhere, any hope for forward movement squelched by the arrival of Lolly's Aunty Rosie, or Crystal Chandelier, as she calls herself. An older, blowsier version of Lolly, Rosie brings along a life-sized male rubber blow-up doll. ("He might come in handy later," she says, adding, "Besides, gettin' sick a me own finger!") Eddie, who by now is down to his underpants, is dispatched to the tiny bathroom for a ridiculously long time so the ladies can squabble. A bag of cocaine is produced and everyone indulges, fueling their talking jags. There's a bit of dancing, too, until Josie shows up, bringing a bit of conflict with him -- but by then it's too late for any real drama to transpire.

Sexton simply fails to make a case for why we should be interested in the simple-minded Eddie and the two floozies who have invaded his trailer. The playwright flirts with hints of fantasy -- we keep hearing bizarre, banshee-like wails coming from somewhere in the distance -- which feature in the climax, when Josie gets his comeuppance, but this does little to ameliorate the play's basic, and fatal, problem: Why are we expected to spend 90 minutes with these dreary, gratingly vulgar people?

In addition to Keating, who remains fine throughout, Sexton herself plays Lolly, proving herself to be a better actress than playwright. Zoë Watkins throws herself into the role of Rosie with almost unseemly zest, treating lines like "I pissed a little in me Spanx" as if they were the height of wit. Johnny Hopkins brings an understated menace to the role of Josie.

Alan Cox's direction maintains a good pace, but he can't make the lines funny, nor can he do much about the many holes in the plot, beginning with the question of why Josie dumps Lolly in this particular place to begin with. When we finally learn what Eddie means by "you never forget the smell," it shocks, but does little to alter the situation. In any case, Cox has gotten excellent work from his designers. Charlie Corcoran's set, depicting the inside of Eddie's trailer plus a bit of the area around it, is a seedy marvel, and Michael O'Connor's lighting is filled with subtle, telling effects. Ryan Rumery's sound design is unusually complex, consisting of a wide variety of effects, including radio broadcasts, arriving cars, techno music, and that strange banshee wail, among others.

The play ends with a stab at making us feel something for Eddie and Lolly, but it is too little, too late. It occurred to me, about halfway through, that perhaps Sexton is making a statement about Irish life. If The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal is a state-of the-nation play, however, Ireland is in alarming shape.--David Barbour

(5 December 2016)

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