“What’s It All About, Enda?”
Like Disco Pigs, his linguistically impenetrable two-hander now being revived at the Irish Rep, Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s Ballyturk, currently at St. Ann’s Warehouse, challenges audiences to break through its surrealistic shield to pick up whatever crumbs of meaning it may now and then deign to share.
Walsh’s dreamlike combination of slapstick farce, ritual, violence, dance, music, mime, intellectual abstraction, colloquially accessible and lyrically poetic dialogue, Beckettian overtones (Endgame and Waiting for Godot come to mind), and narrative confusion is performed, under Walsh’s own direction, with such exceptional conviction that the play’s meaning becomes secondary to its physical and vocal expression.
Walsh is reportedly concerned with creating atmosphere more than meaning in Ballyturk, which he certainly achieves with his three actors, only one of them—Mikel Murfi—from the original production in 2014 at the Galway International Arts Festival. Murfi plays 2, the older of the two main characters, while the role of 1, first played by Cillian Murphy, and that of 3, created by Stephen Rea, were afterward taken by, respectively, Tadgh Murphy and Olwen Fouéré; all do brilliantly.
The men occupy a massive, doorless room designed by Jamie Vartan, who also did the costumes, and memorably lit by Adam Silverman. It looks like the interior of a gray, concrete warehouse, with furniture piled up at the sides, including wardrobes packed with shoes, clothing, and a Murphy bed.
|Tadhg Murphy, Mikel Murfi. Photo: Teddy Wolff.|
There’s an exposed shower and toilet, a fridge, a microwave, a 45 rpm record player, piles of 45s, red balloons, and a wall filled with childish drawings. All sorts of detritus come into play, including a cuckoo clock and an alarm clock, both of which actively insist on the crushing imminence of time and thus, the brevity of life.
A curtain hides the lower part of the upstage wall behind which is an electric light spelling the name of the fictional town of “Ballyturk.” Also visible are numerous drawings of the town’s residents, many of whose names are mentioned, and several of whom are targeted with darts.
A remarkable cacophony of sound (thanks to Helen Atkinson)—including original music by Teho Teardo, and heavily rhythmic musical selections (like ABC’s “The Look of Love” and Blancmange’s “Living on the Ceiling”)—are heard as 1 and 2 eat crisps and cereal while plowing through a script marked by multiple blackouts and sharp tonal shifts.
|Mikel Murfi, Tadgh Murphy. Photo: Teddy Wolff.|
Both 1 and 2 wear ordinary grunge when they’re not stripped down to their jockey shorts, the latter inspiring considerable use of talcum powder. References to hair are frequent, 1’s being worn in a ponytail while 2’s is bright red and swept up in matching waves. 1, it should be noted, has a propensity for epileptic fits and bashing his head bloody against the wall.
Their precisely timed, thickly Irish-accented banter, much of it shouted, is often delivered in bursts of rapid-fire verbiage as they talk of and portray the various townspeople, reviling them and their town. Birds, flies, and cats people the images, and 1’s frequent handling of a kitchen knife suggests that someone has been murdered. Sometimes, amplified voices from the other side of the walls are heard as 1 and 2 listen closely to these persons in an outside world they can only imagine.
|Mikel Murfi, Tadgh Murphy. Photo: Teddy Wolff.|
Who 1 and 2 are, where they are, what their relationship is, or why they behave as they do aren’t explained. For all the physical realism of their environment, none of what’s happening is intended to be real in a conventional sense. This becomes especially clear when, in a remarkable visual effect I’ll refrain from describing, 3 appears, cigarette in hand. Her appearance is unforgettable, Olwen Fouéré being a striking-looking, deep-voiced woman of a certain age in a pale peach-colored trench coat, her gorgeously resplendent white hair spilling onto her shoulders.
|Olwen Fouéré. Photo: Teddy Wolff.|
The manic pace, which makes much of what the actors say indecipherable, now slows as 3 takes control over the men’s lives, interrogating them, singing the old Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne standard, “Time after Time” into a mic that descends from above, and bringing refreshing clarity to Walsh’s image-laden prose, if not necessarily to its purpose. The impression is that she is Death, come to take one of them back with her. That accomplished, the continuation of life’s cycle is touchingly embodied in a surprise ending.
Ballyturk, which runs an hour and a half, is a decidedly well-done work of absurdist theatre. What’s it all about? Damned if I know (and damned if I care).
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water St., Brooklyn, NY
Through January 28