Arts & Events

'The Walworth Farce' — Druid Ireland at Zellerbach

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 01:09:00 PM

Opening and closing with Bing crooning “An Irish Lullaby,” and proceeding with snatches and strains of other airs and songs, including “Ireland United At Last,” accompanying abrupt—yet endlessly repeated—gestures, speeches and quick changes from one ratty costume and wig to another, the performance by Druid Ireland of Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce at Zellerbach Playhouse is by turns silly, disconcerting, uproarious, dismaying, hysterical and strangely tragic—an unexpected triumph of gestural theater and histrionic storytelling in the service of what cannot be easily articulated or shown. 

In an engaging cellphone conversation, director Mikel Murfi, appearing in Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom in New York (the two plays will coincide at UCLA in two weeks) employed the term “sublime” along with a comparison of The Walworth Farce to the Three Stooges—an apt mismatch of categories to qualify a play about a father who keeps his grown sons locked inside their ramshackle apartment-in-exile, ceaselessly play-acting a squalid melodrama of his own, questionable account of quitting Cork for London years before, in a big hurry. 

The father, Dinny (Michael Glenn Murphy), appears as himself, as he would be seen, in the self-justifying potboiler, when he isn’t taking off his rug and rubbing cream on his pate, railing at or cajoling his grown boys as they adroitly jump through the hoops, playing a plethora of overlapping roles ... Dinny lifts his trophy high in exultation at his own genius, or is reduced to tears, impressed by his own abject state. His sons, Sean (Tadhg Murphy) and Blake (Raymond Scannell), follow his lead like terriers, breathlessly posing and reciting, finding a brief moment here and there to speak together like brothers, in a low voice, of the reality of their lot—the enforced reality of fantasy.  

Sean can recall the events predicating his father’s departure and seems to hold an uneasy secret. But the two captive brothers have known little of the world since they were 4 or 5, bred in a trunk if not born in it, and are wary of, if attracted by, what’s outside the multiply-bolted door, even remarking on the rapacity of the Outsiders, who might break through and immolate their strange family romance as performed for their own audience. 

But when the outside does come innocently knocking, over something simple like a switch of grocery bags, the perspective changes differently than expected—and Druid’s actual audience at first sees what represents the normal world outside (Mercy Ojelade as an unwitting envoy of sanity) just as comically as the weird men bonded within, before the normal is pressed into theatrical service, all of it oiling the relentless dynamo of Dinny’s delusion. 

It’s the implacable nature of this play-within-a-play and its perverse relation to reality which connects The Walworth Farce to the deepest stratum of theatricality, what various commentators have referred to as the histrionic urge or impulse. There’s something in Dinny’s homemade spectacle that seems like a backwards version of The Mousetrap, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, played out in broad, vaudevillean manner to “catch the conscience of the king.” In fact, the whole dynamic of The Walworth Farce is somehow reminiscent of the great Baroque revenge melodramas Hamlet capitalized on, awful pantomimes of the madness of human nature, teetering on the brink of burlesque. 

But the final overtones of Walsh’s “farce” are distinctly tragic, or hyper-tragic, in the sense of Artaud’s eulogy on Euripides: “In Aeschylus, Man is very evil [or sick], but with Euripides, the floodgates are open—and in the end, we don’t know just where we are.”  

If the territory’s not the map, there’s still something familiar about this sordid terrain, this pied-a-terre rather than The Ould Sod, rickety home-away-from-home. With the immediacy of real theater, the action’s unexpected, yet strangely familiar, inevitable. As the plot—or plots—unfold, everything retroactively falls into place with the sense of inevitability that once described fate—another connection with classical tragedy. The three sorry madcaps endlessly rehearse a ritual—and, as in tragedy, it’s the variation or breakdown of that ritual, something of its hollowness (Artaudagain: “To perform the Mass again and again until we see the nothingness it comes from”) that presages the genuinely tragic. Yet, with all the verbiage, all the sense of fateful necessity, what’s tragic is that which is breakaway from fate, the irony of silence that conjures a new meaning at the frontiers of language.  

Walsh’s “farce” and Druid’s performance of it fulfill these difficult terms of engagement, with art as well as with the human condition, with a production the director described as “talky physically without saying anything.” A great deal is spoken, even more articulated through body language—“And the rest is silence.” 

Mikel Murfi, a student of Jacques Lecoq, in the ongoing mainstream of gestural theater that began a century ago with the rediscovery of vaudeville, circus and Commedia by Jacques Copeau and V. S. Meyerhold, has taken his cast and his art pretty close to the limit, coming to grips with what he referred to as the multiple rollercoasters—“three, when the audience expects two”—of the action of Walsh’s play, and the “new form of English” in the unfamiliar “distortions” of “the Cork patois” the actors employ sometimes with affection, sometimes deploy as rapiers.  

Murfi spoke of Walsh going at his work, his characterizations “with hammer and tongs ... he doesn’t sanitize, but starts punching until the lights go out ... jumping from second to second, with the audience not knowing who’s in charge or what comes next.” 

Murfi also drew parallels to the recent news stories—here and in Austria—of parents (or self-appointed surrogates) imprisoning their children for years to provoke a nightmarish parody of family life with endless rehearsals of incest. 

And Murfi spoke of his excellent players in their roles, performing “locked away, not supposed to be good actors, but not such bad actors either. “Once it takes off, Enda doesn’t let the audience sit wallowing in it for too long; he wants to give the audience no chance to rationalize it to themselves. He doesn’t give us time to think. Enda takes a huge risk, it being as constantly confused as it can be, until the audience gives over.”  

Gives over and just watches. Experiences action as overloaded and seemingly inexplicable as intense experiences are in life. Yet this intense experience was written, rehearsed and is performed again and again, like Dinny and his kids have done, maniacally cranking out their own private show for a couple decades ... something of the mystery of theater, not to mention social behavior. The audience on the first night of The Walworth Farce in Berkeley celebrated that with a big ovation.