If you’ve never felt goosebumps rise on your arms in 80 degree weather, you have a week left to seek out the experience. The powerfully haunting spectacle that is Swampoodle — hatched by Solas Nua in partnership with The Performance Corporation of Ireland — has been shrouded in mystery for weeks. The only real signs of unusual goings-on lately have been the few additional Irish artists prowling around, and some excited whispers about using the old abandoned Uline Arena as a performance space. What on earth is going on in there?
The show title doesn’t shed any light — these days it sounds like the name of a children’s cartoon character. But the achievement here turns out to be big, bold, and memorable. Grasping onto whatever small traditions DC has with site-specific theatre and blowing them up to monumental proportions, Swampoodle employs a cast of twelve to bring the long-dead interior of the Uline to flickering life once again.
We can be forgiven, perhaps, for having forgotten what “Swampoodle” is, or the Uline Arena for that matter (you’ve been by it — it’s that enormous, run-down, stadium-sized building on the east side of the Metro tracks at New York Avenue formerly known as the Washington Coliseum). But both can speak volumes about the areas we call home, and about how modern cities swallow up the past. In the late nineteenth century, the neighborhood of Swampoodle bustled with immigrant families, mostly Irish, working to transform the agricultural outskirts of the city into a center for modern industry. This strange, sooty stew of early urban industrial growth took lives, bred disease, fed crime, and haunts the area to this day — to the degree that few DC-ers can locate the neighborhood on the map. Today, the skeleton of Swampoodle lies right downtown, gouged in half by the tracks of Union Station and left to languish in a series of poor, undeveloped commercial blocks.
Ghosts abound in this dead, dark, rumbling part of town, and drawing them to seance is one of the things that theatre does best. It’s easy to give too much away in a show like this, but what’s probably clear is that the echoing expanse inside the Uline — a hollow, rotting, and utterly fascinating space — is the strongest character of all. Audiences gather outside on the street, dwarfed by the building in front of them. The Box Office resides in a parking attendant’s booth. Then together on foot, in we go.
The resulting oohs and ahhs and gasps of surprise throughout the crowd sound like the kind we reserve for our visits to the most vaulting cathedrals and the deepest canyons. And the arena is both of these things, in its own way. All around us, the artists use the space, vanishing and reappearing across the outcroppings of concrete, swaths of asphalt, and half-walls of broken wood. The lights and projections play marvelous tricks. Little scenes emerge from corner to corner. Everything else around us gets swallowed up, like Swampoodle itself, into the distant darkness.
The show’s rewards are in this experience of wandering, but there’s more to it as well. The story, ostensibly, begins when it turns out that the play itself has not begun at all. The actors are playing a little meta-theatrical mind game with us, you see. Using their real names, each one plays a member of the supporting cast of Swampoodle — at least, the Swampoodle audiences were supposed to watch, before the lead actors took better, more well-paying gigs at the last minute. Left as a skeleton crew, with a horde of paying theatre-goers to impress, the supporting cast attempts to make up a brand-new play about Swampoodle on the spot, off the cuff. Naturally, as the actors each reveal their own fraught assumptions about what the neighborhood actually represents ethnically, racially, and culturally, we learn that the area is a prism of many times, many eras, and a remarkably vast spectrum of people.
It’s a neat idea, which almost pays out through the whole evening. Swampoodle does have its logistical pitfalls, however. Because the audience is all on foot, orbited by the cast, scene transitions require a mob re-orientation and, sometimes, a sizeable walk across the floor of the arena. Add to that the massive echo-chamber sound quality of the space, and it grows obvious that not every person will hear everything. Which is all well and good — the paper-thin plot doesn’t require our total understanding from moment to moment — except that audience members need to feel that they have permission to not catch everything. If the show were even more environmental — with multiple points of focus and simultaneous scenes — we’d probably feel a bit less troubled by the choice words and sentences we don’t hear through the crowd.
These questions of structure don’t undercut the final product by much, though. After all, what a venue! The performers build up points of curiosity, musing on the slippery nature of time and space, but not many of the details stick. The piece serves to tickle, not teach, and if anything it sends people home intrigued enough to discover more on their own. While under that tall, tall roof of the arena, however — lost in the black air high above us — we’re thankful for such a glorious change of scenery.
Written by Tom Swift
Conceived of and Produced by The Performance Corporation and Solas Nua
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDCBrett Abelman . DCist
Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper