I’ve managed to squeeze a little theatre into my school schedule, first in Dublin with the Gate Theatre’s excellent presentation of Enemy of the People, and back here in Cork, I found a few pieces during the Midsummer Festival that I could attend: the entertainingly surreal “tango opera” Maria de Buenos Aires, a new play by Carmel Winters entitled Best Man, and local author Ailís Ní Rían’s new piece, The Tallest Man in the World.
Enemy of the People had a surprisingly modern resonance. It’s parallels to the modern issue of climate change were starkly depressing. I’m sure if Michael Mann saw the play, he’d agree that little has changed in 130 years, though what happens to the lead character is a bit more bleak than what Mann has been through.
Director Wayne Jordan kept the actors in motion, which helps when Ibsen’s tendency to be a bit preachy shows up. Especially effective are the scenes in the second act when the townspeople who heckle and threaten Dr. Stockman (the hero) do so from the audience, as it makes us complicit in attacking him. The sound design was also quite interesting, and normal household sounds turned eerie and threatening.
When we returned to Cork, the Midsummer Festival was getting underway, and as I’m a huge fan of composer Astor Piazzolla, when I discovered that his music was featured in Maria de Buenos Aires, I signed up immediately. It was billed as a “tango opera” but I would call it more of a theatre piece with dance, music, and words. There wasn’t enough tango to call it a dance, nor enough singing to call it an opera, but it did have a story and, to my satisfaction, a continuous soundtrack of Piazzolla.
The first half of the story follows the classic story line of the poor but beautiful girl corrupted by the big city, but turns delightfully surreal in the second act after she dies and begins her afterlife in the underworld. Horacio Ferrer wrote the poems that serves as the book.
Best Man was billed as a dark comedy, which for me, brings to mind the work of Martin McDonagh or Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Unfortunately, this piece was really more like three separate plays, two dramas and one comedy, stitched together like a Frankenstein’s monster. And while Best Man was structurally an unholy mess, unlike the poor monster, none of it’s parts were really unsound or abnormal. The stories could be separated out as 1) a sex comedy in which a Brazilian au pair wreaks havoc by falling in love with the wife for whom she is working; 2) a father-daughter drama in which the daughter meets her father for the first time as he is dying, and learns that the stories of the mother who raised her are untrue; 3) a divorce drama in which a woman loses her children after falling in love with another woman.
All of these stories had strong characters and a good premise. Unfortunately, they didn’t fit together. The father-daughter story was the shortest, using the au pair from the first story as the daughter. But it ended after only a few scenes and then the father character died and the storyline was abandoned. Worse, those scenes were rendered unnecessary by a more compelling summary involving the dead father’s effects in the third story.
The comedy had some lively scenes and humorous writing, but the tonal shift when the wife left the husband for the au pair, triggering the divorce was jarring. The fight over custody and the wife’s subsequent loss of her children, home, and eventually, her lover was purely drama, and had nothing in common (other than characters) with the sprightly sex comedy that had preceded it. Again, the writing was good in both, but the clash of tones and the complete abandonment of the father-daughter line meant that the piece never really coalesced.
My final play was The Tallest Man in the World. It’s piece was staged in a minimalist, Beckettian style. Each of the three actors sat in a chair in darkness until it was their turn to speak, and a footlight illuminated them while they were talking. Each person had what appeared to be a solo narrative which eventually wove into a single interrelated story. While the language was often poetic, there was no conflict driving the story, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the relationships between the characters before it was revealed.
Of the three voices, that of the “tallest man” was the most compelling, the other two seemed more mundane (and sometimes stereotypical), though there was drama in the final events that brought the three stories together.