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Theatre in Review: Ballyturk (St. Ann's Warehouse)/Disco Pigs (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Top: Tadhg Murphy, Mikel Murfi. Photo: Teddy Wolff. Bottom: Evanna Lynch, Colin Campbell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

It's Enda Walsh Month in New York, with two different companies producing works by one of the most mandarin voices in Irish drama today. Ballyturk, from 2014, begins on a nerve-shreddingly assaultive note, with sound effects, by Helen Atkinson, that include an aural throb that seems to pass through one's vitals. The lights come up on the actor Tadhg Murphy appearing in sweat pants and a cut-off T-shirt that that says "The A Team," his ponytail sticking out of the back of a football helmet. He is wielding a knife and delivering an overheated monologue about a man invading a woman's kitchen. He is 1. Then we see 2, impersonated by Mikel Murfi, a rather beefy type with red hair; he is dressed only in white underpants, his entire body, from the neck down, covered in baby powder. He is eating a bag of chips.

What follows is one of the more bizarre acting exercises that you can witness in New York right now, as the two actors -- who occupy some kind of (apparently) hermetically sealed space -- frantically perform one task after another. They take part in various calisthenics, and one of them briefly hooks himself up to one of those reducing machines so popular when grandma was young. One of them takes a shower while the other practices his putting style. There is some fooling around with balloons, some of which are burst during an exchange involving a story, about bunnies, that fills them with foreboding. Voices are heard, their provenance unknown, making statements like the following: "Oh, I worship an egg. I do often daydream of changing shape like that of the Greek Minotaur but in chicken form. Happily I would sit around laying eggs into my hand and eating them religiously. And although devouring one's unfertilized young may seem completely disgusting to some people, my conscience would be forever beaten by the promise of an eggy stomach!"

And so it goes: the men move across the stage, their bodies joined together, in lockstep. Sometimes one has the other in a hammerlock. They open the curtain on the upstage wall, revealing a neon sign that spells out "Ballyturk." The walls are covered with torn sketches of a town and rough outlines of what may be its citizens. They spin one story after another about the Ballyturk locals, not least the one about the young man who, carrying his mother's coffin, slips on the ice, "the casket's brass handles opening his head -- like a fork being pushed onto a boiled potato. To save on the cost of another casket, they just lay Dinty's body on top of his mother's. Buried them both -- like a Twix bar." This leads to a kind of lightning round in which Murphy shouts out names and Murfi strikes poses indicative of each. Many of these antics are performed to the likes of the Camera Obscura tune "The World is Full of Strangers" and Nena's "99 Luftballons," often delivered -- like Teho Teardo's music and most of the other sound effects -- at a level calculated to leave a permanent ringing in one's ears.

I have it on good authority that this opening sequence is supposed to induce rip-roaring hilarity, but, at the performance I attended, the spectacle of watching these two refugees from a kind of existential Gaelic Road Runner cartoon was dispiriting. When Murphy ran toward the stage left wall, smashing his head against it until it bled, I knew how he felt. Walsh seems to operate on the theory that if a bit of nonsense is amusing, a shipping container's worth is even better. This is not to denigrate the total commitment and skill of the two actors: If there were such a thing as a Dada Olympics, they would be gold medalists.

However, the production executes a most startling U-turn, thanks to the appearance -- via a coup de théâtre I'd best keep to myself -- of 3, a stylish woman of a certain age, played by Olwen Fouéré. Impressively slender, dressed in a white blouse, pencil skirt, and trenchcoat, her flowing white-blonde locks cascading well past her shoulders, she is a commanding and mysterious presence right out of a nineteen-forties private-eye fiction. Even better, she slows down the action, creating a center of gravity, and brings an authentic sense of drama to these reckless, rattletrap proceedings. She opens with a monologue about her nicotine addiction (Been smokin' so long my right hand doesn't seem natural without a cigarette in it.") that leaves the men gobsmacked, stunned into silence, and for good reason: Delivered precisely, at a measured pace, the actress unlocks the dark poetry in Walsh's words; they suddenly sound carefully considered, each of them bearing a deeper meaning that exists just outside of one's understanding. And a definite frisson ripples through the room when she says, "I collect things. That's what I'm here for."

As it happens, she is a kind of angel of death. And, by now, it seems clear that Ballyturk is an imaginary place created by the two men, who may or may not be brothers and who may or may not have been originally deposited in their bleak environment by 3. However, as Ballyturk begins to acquire a dramatic profile, it also comes to resemble a compendium of absurdist drama tropes. Of course, Beckett is a reigning spirit, given the placement of two hapless clowns in an unknown -- and unknowable -- environment; the agonizingly shrill alarm clock seems airlifted in from Happy Days. Also, Fouéré's monologue about her cigarette could have come from The Homecoming or some other Pinter enigma. There's more than a touch of Sam Shepard in the suffocatingly close sibling-style relationship and the cold, controlling parental figure. Ballyturk also recalls Arlington, the previous Walsh work presented at St. Ann's, given its central situation based on the idea of an unexplained confinement.

Everything else in Walsh's production, including Jamie Vartan's setting -- a kind of giant garage space covered with impossible-to-reach shelves and cuckoo clocks that burst into flames -- and Adam Silverman's lighting, is effectively executed. If Ballyturk -- from the Abbey Theatre, co-presented by Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival -- shuttles between the inexplicable and the derivative, it may be worth seeing if only to catch Fouéré, who has enjoyed a distinguished career in Europe but who is rarely seen here. She very nearly transforms this willfully strange piece into a meaningful experience.

Disco Pigs, an early Walsh drama (from 1996), focuses on the forbiddingly intimate relationship between a pair of adolescents, known as Pig and Runt. They live largely in their own world, with little interest in school, their parents, or anyone else their age. Pig develops sexual feelings for Runt, who doesn't return them. Their locked-up world is disturbed by Runt's interest in another male, and a night spent in a series of clubs ends in violence and an escape that is surely no escape at all. There is, I suspect, a lot more to it, but that's all I can tell you, because what with a text written largely in the characters' private language and delivered in the thickest of accents, I understood only every fourth word. The play begins with a reenactment of the characters' births (which took place on the same day), part of which is rendered thusly: "Scream da Pig man! Her face like a Christmas pud all sweaty an steamy! Da two trollies like a big choo choo it clear all infron! Oudda da fookin way cant jaaa!" Or try this passage on for size: "Las time Pig and Runt eva give mona to da bus... mus a bin a baba, a lease! Why nee ta pass wid any kush? Bus boss he well loaded yeah! Jacussi in sall da bedroams, I bed. So me an Runt jus barrel on!" Somewhere around twenty-minute point, I began to worry I was having an aphasic episode.

Absent a secret decoder ring, you simply have to ride the wave of words, hoping that they will coalesce into something comprehensible. I can't think of another play that so sternly insists on one's close attention while consistently frustrating it -- and which, given the rather ordinary melodrama at its heart, offers so little in return. I can say that the two-person cast performs it with exemplary commitment and fluidity, although I never really believed that Colin Campbell's Pig was capable of the brutal acts he commits. Evanna Lynch, best known as the ethereal Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films, is an appealing presence as Runt, especially as she delicately tries to disengage herself from her friend's sexual attentions. John Haidar's direction seems to be on Walsh's wavelength, and Richard Kent's setting -- a wasteland framed in metal walls and beams -- is lit with elegance and sensitivity by Elliot Griggs. Giles Thomas' sound design includes a playlist of disco favorites. Walsh has many fans, and I imagine that those who are familiar with Disco Pigs -- which was also made into a film in 2001 -- will find many rewards here. They are welcome to them. -- David Barbour

(16 January 2018)

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