Thursday, February 27, 2020

171. (2019-2020): Review: INCANTATA (seen Februray 26, 2020)

“Disenchanted Evening”

Just as the title, Incantata, may not be clear to you (it’s Italian for “enchanted” and similar words), so may the same be said of this play’s numerous arcane, archaic, and foreign words, place names, and allusions.

Stanley Townsend. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Incantata is an elegy by multi-award winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who teaches at Princeton. It memorializes Muldoon’s partner, the painter Mary Farl Powers (1948-1992), who died at 42 from breast cancer. More performance art than conventional drama, it provides a tour de force opportunity for the solo actor, Stanley Townsend, who introduced it, under Sam Yate’s imaginative staging, at the 2018 Galway International Arts Festival and then at Dublin's Gate Theatre.  
Unlike my plus-one and another friend who saw the play with me, I found myself without the time to read it first. While they emerged deeply impressed, I struggled to grasp more than the bare outlines of its premise: the speaker’s memories of his lover, his lamentation for her loss from cancer, and the emotional toll it took on him. 

This, however, proved insufficient to draw me into this essentially nondramatic exercise, regardless of the skill of all concerned in realizing it. The text, which I read afterward, often eluded me during the performance. Incantata, which runs only around an hour, is composed more for the reader than the viewer, in a verbal style reminiscent of the abstractions of Samuel Beckett (whose work—and person—it often references) and James Joyce.
Unfamiliar words in English, Gaelic, French, and Latin (and perhaps languages I didn’t recognize), flow like Dublin’s River Liffey through Muldoon’s cascade of allusions, in which art, literature, music, food, nature, and even commercial products (like Lucozade) all play their part, as do acts of Irish political terrorism.

Muldoon gradually, albeit obliquely, describes a woman of great generosity who believed everything in life is predetermined, that nothing is arbitrary, and who refused modern medical treatments  (like surgery) for homeopathic ones. He practically blames her for her own death: “You were determined to cut yourself off in your prime.” 

But such narrative elements are the exception, not the rule in the speaker’s rambling discourse, much of it filled with the dropping of Irish and European place names that had particular meaning for Muldoon and Powers. In this context, they have more value for their sounds than their evocation of locales of which most of us have never heard. 
Yate’s directorial conceit places Townsend as the unnamed Man in a crude semblance of an artist’s studio (designed by Rosanna Vize), one corner filled with potatoes. Sheets of paper on which small images pressed on them in repetitive patterns are taped to the walls. When the audience enters, Townsend, in gray work clothes and cap, is already busy carving an image out of a spud, which he’ll eventually combine with paint to make a pressing representing the Inca glyph for a mouth, whose significance he’ll briefly explain. 

Everything the man does is presumably being recorded on video, the images covering the walls. A few sequences suggest the video (designed by Jack Phelan) is prerecorded, not live, requiring expert coordination between actor and technology. The camera, however, slowly morphs into a ghostly semblance of Mary as the actor manipulates it and even drapes it with a shawl or cap, as appropriate.
Meanwhile, music, in an assortment of styles assembled by Sinéad Diskin, with an original score by Teho Tehardo, accompanies much of the action. Particularly effective is the selection heard at the start, when the old 50s doo-wop standard, “Silhouettes,” is played as the Man creates the silhouette of the Inca mouth image. 
Townsend, middle-aged and silver-haired, clearly understands each nook and cranny of Muldoon’s complex text. He brings conviction and passion to the work, giving it great vivacity despite its often obscure nature.
Notwithstanding Townsend’s ardent acting or the play’s poetic values and the painful loss they express, though, Incantata remains an abstruse poem that lacks the dramatic power to evoke what its title promises—enchantment.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through March 15