Thursday, February 15, 2007

REVIEW: American Buffalo (The Gate, Dublin)

American Buffalo, David Mamet's breakthrough play from thirty years ago, has all the stylistic tics that make his mano-a-mano dramas so instantly recognisable. It's a play full of guys, guys who love curt and repetitious badinage about cheats and tricksters. And double bluffs. And triple crosses.

Here we have a fractious gang of flop-outs and would-be sharks, scratching some wobbly kind of existence on the felonious edges of 1970s Chicago. Don (Sean McGinley, in what looks like the same costume he was wearing a few months ago, in the Abbey's Empress of India) runs a pawn shop where panhadling types come to hang out.

There's Don's halfwit gopher protégé, Bobby (Domhnall Gleeson, feeling it all, big time) And then, of course, there's Aidan Gillen's Teach, a wiry insomniac who moves like a stick puppet, as though driven around the stage on an uncomfortably placed piece of wood. He prowls the set, peeping through bits of furniture, ever ready to slap you upside the head, or start crying.

Mamet often seems like something of a thorn in the side of good actors; his classic scripts don't really call for good actors. Or, more to the point, they don't really call for good acting, at least in the traditional sense. If an actor is too smooth, too good at creating a whole character from a few spare words, then things can kind of fall apart.

That's not quite what happens in director, Mark Brokaw's Gate version, but things are certainly straining in that direction. McGinley seems not entirely sure whether it's wise to render Don in 3D, while Gillen's too busy buzzing to worry overly. Consequently, that sense a menace we're struggling to fathom, never quite materialises, leaving instead a niggling feeling that somebody has successfully bluffed.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

REVIEW: Empress of India (The Abbey, Dublin)

Who is the aging madman striding the stage in his bed clothes, thinning white hair whipped up like a halo by his demented thrashing? Is it Hamlet or King Lear? Pozzo or Lucky? Or some charlatan channelling all of them? Who knows for sure. For Seamus Lamb (Sean McGinley) is such a distorted, mercurial character, he is equally likely to be pretending to be someone else or revealing himself.

Lamb is the central character in the second full length play from Stuart ‘Navan Man’ Carolan, the tale of an apparently mentally unwell, aging actor and his perfectly dysfunctional family, Martin (Aaron Monaghan), Matty (Tadgh Murphy) and their hovering, mute sister (Sarah Greene).

Empress of India is pretty much the last thing you might expect from Carolan, a writer with a good pedigree of creating populist entertainment. It is a difficult play in which naturalism and extreme theatrical poetry jostle for our attention, a play which demands that the audience work hard, and, when they have, offers them little in the way of conventional rewards.

Sean McGinley is an actor who does exteriors exquisitely well. He is at his best when asked to produce a surface below which an endless reservoir of emotion is suppressed. This, however, makes him something less than an ideal choice for Seamus Lamb, a character whose impact comes from his ability to move between his public face and his private pain with some agility, if not with much strategy.

No wonder the Abbey audience seemed confused. How many of them really find in their everyday lives that the uttering of an obscenity – particularly that ever-popular epithet for copulation – leaves them guffawing uncontrollably? Maybe, of course, there is something cleverer than that at play, and Carolan is simply tipping his audience off about how to react to his uncomfortable, abstract and occasionally overwrought drama.

The only unequivocally successful element here is the production design, by Druid regular, Francis O’Connor, which gives intense visual form to this family’s shattered personas. The centrepiece leaning over the action is a huge set of distorting mirrors, that also occasionally turn into a screen on which images created by the team of Evita Galanou, Ueli Nuesch and Thomas Wollenberger are projected from behind.

The switches between reflection and projection are beautifully poised, punctuating the live action and occasionally telling the part of the story. Scenes presented below the mirrored surface in particular create stunning distorted images, zooming and shrinking the actors as they move about, stylishly paralleling the anguished egos we see struggling with cosmic darkness.

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