Pulsing with snarling, furious energy, Solas Nua’s headlong production of Rosemary Jenkinson’s streetwise play Johnny Meister and The Stitch is not for the faint of heart. A nifty and perhaps intentional prelude to DC’s upcoming Capital Fringe fest—it weighed in at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe –this down and dirty two-man drama whisks you away, uninvited, to the dangerous, impoverished back streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland where two angry young men square off for a final, inevitable smackdown.
Johnny Meister is firmly ensconced in the still-evolving contemporary Irish dramatic tradition where brutal realism long ago replaced the warm Ireland of old—a land that never existed anyway except in the minds of Hollywood producers and lachrymose, overly Romantic 20th century Irish-Americans. No more dreamy “Celtic Twilight” stuff, no broadly comic Playboy of the Western World, not even the slightly edgier humor of Brian Friel here. Emerging in the 1970s and 1980s and now in full flower, new generations of Irish playwrights routinely dig into the reality of Irish life as it is today, mercilessly shattering any mythology that yet remains.
Whether they take place in the heart of a grubby city or the lonely boglands of the country’s still rural West, these new plays deal with the kind of problems we encounter right here in our own backyards: drugs, poverty, ignorance, and sectarian and political violence.
Johnny Meister itself is like a cross between Dermot Bolger’s heroin-laced Dublin tragedy, One Last White Horse (circa 1991) and the rough and tumble Scottish film “Trainspotting” (1996). It’s cleverly designed as a pair of monologues bookending two different takes on an impending turf battle between the play’s two eponymous characters—disadvantaged, undereducated Belfast lads whose life on the dole leads to a downward spiral of booze, drugs, and violence.
We meet Johnny (Chris Dinolfo) first, an impetuous youth who boasts of a small gang of like-minded individuals whose everyday challenges include scoring adequate quantities of the drug du jour and vigorously impregnating young women when the opportune moment arises. We also learn that Johnny is getting closer and closer to a showdown with Davey “Stitch” Brown, perhaps a onetime associate but now increasingly an implacable enemy.
Contrariwise, after a short break in the action, we meet Stitch himself (Rex Daugherty), Perhaps surprisingly, he turns out to be a bit different from the beast we’ve learned to expect. True, he’s no better off and not much wiser than Johnny. But he seems to have slightly more self-awareness. He’s attempting to score his own welfare flat and is at least trying to stay on the meds he’s been prescribed to manage his unpredictable outbursts.
Both lads are, in a way, trying to avoid one another, each fearing the consequences of a final facedown even as each boasts of his inevitable, glorious victory. But in naturalistic dramas like Johnny Meister, as in the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Thomas Hardy, we eventually grasp that character is fate. Certain outcomes simply can’t be avoided. The conclusion is embedded in the genes, society, or a combination of both.
In this production, Solas Nua makes a virtue out of the Mead Theatre Lab’s barebones black box space. There is no set to speak of, only evenly spaced pairs of vertical fluorescent tubes and a couple of overhead spots, all cleverly deployed at various times by lighting designer Marianne Meadows. Sometimes a set of lights flashes on to depict a building or the onrush of headlights from a distant car. At other times, the tubes seem like postmodern prison bars forming a claustrophobic cage from which the protagonists can never escape. Making things spookier are the vague, thundering, subwoofer sounds that wash over the action from time to time, sometimes echoing the sounds of the city and other times keying in on the mental turmoil of each character.
Contrasting the darkness of the setting, Johnny and Stitch themselves are garbed more colorfully, bouncing about in colorful sporting togs, like a pair of carefree young sportsmen. But the sporting life in their quarter of Belfast is considerably more threatening as the audience soon comes to learn.
Both Chris Dinolfo and Rex Daugherty turn in crackerjack performances as Johnny and Stitch. Crackling with manic energy with nowhere useful to release it, both characters are soon bathed in sweat due to the strenuousness of their efforts. Throwing shadow punches and jabs here, turning somersaults, simulating sex with stud-muffin vigor, and huffing on invisible hashish joints like there’s no tomorrow, both characters are viscerally in your face. The pacing of this play is fast and you have to move faster simply to keep up.
As you might expect, the urban Irish street talk can occasionally be a challenge for the unfamiliar. But with some concentration, it’s not much more difficult than penetrating a thick New Orleans patois or cutting through dense, hip hop lyrics or rapid-paced slam poetry. I perhaps had a slight advantage here, having spent a good bit of time in both Dublin and Belfast, including the bad parts. But if you can get into the music of it, it’s a good, fast ride, assuming you don’t mind the staccato of F-bombs liberally laced throughout. (Also quite authentic.)
Belfast’s Des Kennedy’s direction of the proceedings is effective and unobtrusive. Johnny Meister is a character play above all, and Kennedy clearly had the sense to help his actors inhabit their characters. Then he let them run.
Johnny Meister and The Stitch is tough stuff. But if you like your drama edgy and kinetic, if you don’t mind leaving your comfort zone to experience the rawness of pure desperation and despair, this is as close as you’ll be able to get without having to pack your own blade and body armor.
Note: R-rated dialogue and X-rated sex simulations not for the kiddies. Also, Flashpoint’s current art exhibit leaves, umm, little to the imagination as you pass through it to get to the show.
Johnny Meister and The Stitch
by Rosemary Jenkinson
directed by Des Kennedy
produced by Solas Nua
reviewed by Terry Ponick
Johnny Meister and The Stitch runs thru July 17, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
JOHNNY MEISTER AND THE STITCH