Irish theater can too often leave the audience wondering if there isn’t a single person in Ireland who is sober, sane, and successful. THE WALWORTH FARCE, by celebrated Irish playwright Enda Walsh, does nothing to rectify that misconception; to the contrary, it reinforces the negative Irish stereotype that seems to dominate the genre. But this challenging play does so with equal parts weirdness, tradition, and complexity that have garnered critical acclaim, and that have been embraced whole-heartedly in Inis Nua Theatre Company’s brave and disquieting production.
The action takes place in a ramshackle fifteenth-floor walk-up on London’s Walworth Road, where a father (Bill Van Horn) and his two grown sons (Jake Blouch and Harry Smith) subsist, unemployed, in subsidized public housing. Presented in the format of a real-time play-within-a-play, and paying homage to the tradition of Irish storytelling, the insular life of the Irish transplants revolves around their bizarre daily ritual of reenacting the personal events in their homeland that precipitated their exile to London. With the three men assuming not only their own parts, but also those of their male and female relatives, there are easy, early laughs at their cross-dressing play-acting and ludicrous competition for the coveted family acting trophy. But what begins as ridiculous soon becomes devastating. The unexpected arrival of a grocery store checkout girl (Leslie Nevon Holden)–who inexplicably knows where her customer lives–disrupts their scripted routine and launches an inevitable crisis.
Inis Nua’s cast and design team are well up to the challenge of this demanding production. Meghan Jones’s set creates an appropriately depressing tone of poverty and neglect, Maggie Baker’s costumes range from the filthy tattered clothing of Van Horn’s and Blouch’s characters to the outlandish aprons and wigs of Smith’s gender-bending roles, and J. Alex Cordaro gets a workout as fight choreographer with the men’s numerous well-staged altercations. Directed with mounting tension by Inis Nua founder and artistic director Tom Reing, Van Horn is brutish and domineering as the patriarch, Smith is hilarious and energetic in his quick-change characterizations, and Blouch is heart-wrenching as the obedient but deeply troubled son.
Walsh’s odd and intense play is not easily pigeon-holed as the titular “farce,” or even as a dark comedy, or tragedy, or melodrama, or absurdism, or realism; it is more a constantly shifting combination of all those, an unsettling tale of dysfunction, desperation, paranoia, self-loathing, and stagnation, with characters that dream of a way out, yet remain slaves to their genealogy. It is a story of the ultimate outsiders existing in self-imposed isolation, who, as is slowly revealed, were every bit as violent, crazed, and impoverished (both economically and morally) in their native Ireland as they are in England. And while their emigration from Cork to London provides them a change of scenery, it does not effect a change of self, from which they make no escape.
The daily repetition of the men’s grossly unrealistic and wildly histrionic family history serves as a metaphor for the endless repetition of their self-defeating behavior from generation to generation, as the sons continue the unbroken cycle of brutality, drunkenness, poverty, and insanity. Their well-rehearsed Irish tall-tale bespeaks layers of denial, self-delusion, lies, and false alibis for the father, the indoctrination and brainwashing of his sons, and the utter hopelessness of all three, trapped in their own invented mythology that was originally designed to protect, but ultimately destroys. And the father’s impossibly idealized memories of Ireland—sardonically underscored by a tape recording of Bing Crosby singing “Tura-Lura-Lural” (“That’s an Irish Lullaby”) and the pivotal roasted chicken that smells of home–is less about true homesickness (“It’s all Ireland”) than a desperate compulsion to rewrite his own poisonous past. Consequently, the surprise ending comes as a shock, but not a surprise.
It’s commonplace that stories about healthy, happy, well-adjusted characters just don’t make for provocative theater; Inis Nua’s production of THE WALWORTH FARCE is provocative indeed.
THE WALWORTH FARCE
Written by Enda Walsh
Directed by Tom Reing
May 8-27, 2012
Inis Nua Theatre Company
Off-Broad Street Theatre at First Baptist Church
1636 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
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