Friday, November 25, 2005

REVIEW: Wrecks (Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork)

In the program for Wrecks, Neil Labute offers ten substantial reasons for preferring to work in the theatre to practicing the writer-director’s other sideline, creating Hollywood blockbusters. Some explanation is required, it seems, for opening his latest drama, a one man show, with Hollywood escapee, Ed Harris, at the helm, in Cork.

After a downright noisy first night in the city, LaBute may be inclined to add one in to the opposite column. At least in the cinema, members of the audience don’t get a chance to cough, splutter and hack while the actors are actually doing their work. For the opening night of Wrecks, however, a startling number of people – enough to convince the nervous that the pandemic has indeed kicked off – seemed to be exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

As it happens, Wrecks requires that Harris smoke, and talk about smoking, a great deal, which appeared to allow the actor to respond directly some particularly full-throated contributions. But it was also clear that it was near impossible for him to find his rhythms in the short piece, and begin building the delicate edifice of LaBute’s story. While Harris’ instantly recognisable skull looks striking enough to hold the stage all by itself, he seems non-plussed by the sonic insubordination.

Ironically, disease plays a crucial role in the story, which is told by a recently widowed mid-Western classic car enthusiast. We meet him as a funeral rite (an early hint of a Classical flavour to the evening) for his beloved Jojo, from which he has popped backstage to talk to us, his audience. Theirs was a great love, an April-September one to boot: an oasis of happiness in a hard life, for him an orphan and drifter. Sure, there were obstacles to overcome, like her pugnacious first husband. But once the incidentals are sorted, a life of particularly American happiness followed.

But now cancer has taken Jojo from him and he has a few last words to say, a few memories to share before he too succumbs to the disease. And, of course, this being a LaBute number, before that can happen, there is a truth nagging to be told, an Oedipal mist hanging over the narrative which must be acknowledged or dispersed, and a unsettling surprise awaiting us in the final movement.

It is, in fact, quite a simple play by LaBute’s standards. What is required of Harris is to draw us into the tale’s simplicity with the kind of easy naturalism for which his movie work suggests, he has a profound facility. But something here – and it seems to be the coughing, more than a certain fragility with his lines – is stymieing that pleasure which seemed guaranteed. The illusion is punctured so regularly that, even though the twist turns, the precision that would give the piece its emotional heft is missing.

Still, at least nobody’s mobile went off.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

LaBute's Wreck

“A Room in LA.” That is the secret location in which, until tomorrow, Hollywood actor, Ed Harris and playwright and movie director, Neil LaBute will have been holed up rehearsing a new play. From tomorrow, however, the pair will move to Cork for a couple more days of rehearsal before the show, LaBute’s latest, Wrecks, has its world premier at the Everyman Palace Theatre.

This unusual event has meant that the Everyman has been working under an extremely unusual set of rules of engagement. For one, the script remains secret. While the theatre’s director, Pat Talbot, has read it, to other members of staff, the script has remained “tightly under wraps.”

Talbot and LaBute, who have worked together some years ago in the United States, have, apparently, been seeking a project to do together for some time. The plan has finally come to fruition in 2005 as one of the concluding events of Cork’s European City of Culture program.

Some details of the show have, of course, emerged. Wrecks is a one-man show. Harris (whose twinkly menace was most recently used to great effect as a mobster in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence) plays a man who has recently lost his wife who tells of his love for the woman now taken from him.

But given that Neil LaBute creations (films such as Your Friends and Neighbours and The Shape of Things) tend to have a nasty twist or two along the way, surely we can expect the same from “Wrecks”?

“No,” says a spokesperson for the Everyman. “That is one thing we do know. We were told that there wasn’t a nasty twist to it. It is a very tender, heartfelt play.”

Harris made his stage debut in the Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, although he has not been seen on stage since 1996. Now, however, the time is apparently ripe for a return to the boards.

In, er, ebullient mood, Harris recently told the showbiz trade rag, Variety, he was indeed in possession of “the right stuff” for a Cork debut: “I'm ready to rock and roll on this one,” he told Variety. Before adding a no doubt heartfelt exclamation of “I love Ireland!"

Friday, November 11, 2005

REVIEW: Luca (Project Upstairs, Dublin)

Good is bad and bad in good in the latest frantic, cartoonish satire from Barabbas. So it helps to keep in mind that when the show’s three odd characters say that they “abhor” something, they mean it as the highest praise; while whatever they “adore” is considered worse than worthless.

The three, dressed as standard issue drama-student boho types, seem to be members of a race of time traveling sprites. Luca (Raymond Keane) is the shock-headed leader, while Him (Eoin Lynch) a lecherous beardy whose bare backside appears on stage before he does (not the first time that approach has turned up in a Barabbas show) and Sparrow (Amy Conroy) a blue-haired circus school drop-out, if appearances can be trusted, are his less than obedient footsoldiers.

On a massive, splayed dodecahedron (helpfully identified with the aid of the program) the gang travel at will through time, fetching up at any point that seems in need of a bit of laying waste. Once there, they proceed to have a bit of crack, doing everything from an aerobic work out exploring the various sexual combinations available to two males and a female, to exploring the Pope’s Nazi past. Well, it passes the time.

Despite all of that (and slightly too much more) the show’s clear desire to be a side-splitting romp, remains unfulfilled. It is hard to tell if it is the performances (which are surprisingly brittle) or the characters (which lean towards annoying) that cause the problem, but Luca turns out to be unexpectedly thin on the laughs.


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree is, technically, a play for two actors. But it might be more accurate to describe not as a “two-hander” but as a one-and-a-half-hander. True, Crouch is joined on the stage by another actor each night, but this is not a marriage of equals. For Crouch, who wrote the play, knows the story well. But the other actor has never seen the script, never mind knowing what is going to happen.

There are a few stipulations, however, according to Crouch. “The performer must agree to doing some sight reading and to wearing a pair of headphones for some of the show. They have to be comfortable with a story that involves the death of a child. And most of all they must be open to whatever happens…”

Before the show visits a venue, there is a period of contact in which Crouch and company locate a series of willing performers, a different one for each night. “I usually drop them a line to tell say hello, and I spend an hour with them before the show starts. And I usually buy them a drink afterwards…”

“We have tried it with non-actors,” says Crouch. “Because in principle there is nothing you can do wrong, whatever you do becomes part of the story. But we found that it works better with actors because actors are, in general, more versed in accessing vulnerability… Actors are trained in being open, whereas most people have a kind of defensiveness which is not helpful.”

The conceptual approach used in An Oak Tree (the title was inspired by a piece of 1970s art) bears some relationship to the work of frequent Fringe visitors, Rotozaza, who have brought two shows to Dublin which required them to find unrehearsed local performers.

Not quite by coincidence, Ant Hampton, one of the founders of Rotozaza has also performed in An Oak Tree. “I think what we do is quite different from what they do…I want people to just be themselves, but Ant turned up with a variety of shirts for me to choose which one he should wear for the performance…”

All the same, An Oak Tree might seem to be in danger of suffering something that certainly afflicts Rotozaza shows. Isn’t it more fun for people who have seen a few different versions of the show, like say, those who work on it?

“Yes, sometimes I think my stage manager has the best time of all, because they get to see so many different variations. But the point is it is not just about how different performers create the role -- which would be kind of gimmicky. When we were rehearsing, we agreed that we wouldn’t do the play in this style if it started to become gimmicky. Because, for me the story is always, always the most important thing.”