Here and gone in the twinkling of an eye, Round Two of Solas Nua’sProject Brand New” opened and closed at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab in one weekend with a quartet of works-in-progress, direct from the always bubbling artistic cauldron of Dublin’s theatrical Fringe scene. More or less one-person shows, the featured works included excerpts from Dylan Tighe’s Journey to the End of Night and Sorcha Kenny’s My Life in Dresses, as well as Niamh McCann’s Welcome to the Forty Foot and Matthew Morris’ solo dance piece, My Body Travels.
The theme of the evening, by and large, seemed to be the power of personal conviction and experience as seen through the disparate twin artistic lenses of the spoken word and perhaps intentionally amateurish multimedia tapestries.
“Fringe,” as we generally understand the word when it’s applied to live theater, usually refers to short plays, performance art, dance, mime, or good old-fashioned “busking,” mostly done on the fly with a budget so small it would embarrass a homeless person. Fringe work is usually short, experimental, iconoclastic, fun, or in-your-face, united only by the fact that the work is new, nearly new, and usually generated by younger artists and writers who haven’t arrived yet but are giving it their best shot.
Closest to the “work-in-progress” vein this weekend was an excerpt from Dylan Tighe’s Journey to the End of Night, a kind of stationary, readers’ theater travelogue with commentary. Titled after Céline’s eponymous 1932 novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit, Tighe’s own “Journey” is essentially edited journal observations detailing his lonely solo voyage from Beijing to Moscow on the decidedly proletarian Trans-Mongolian Express.
Seated at a small desk and facing the audience, Tighe read from his entries while using a small overhead projector to help visualize his epic journey, swiftly and deftly moving through tickets, passport stamps, visas, postcards, and his own photos, all helping to visually illuminate a vast and desolate landscape rarely viewed or described by Westerners.
Tighe’s observations, quotes, and commentary seem to track closely with Céline’s anti-hero, Bardamu, whose irony, nihilism, and cynical humor enormously influenced the style and attitudes of many Continental writers of the time and even, eventually, many Americans. To Bardamu’s jaundiced philosophical eye, Tighe adds his own, spinning visuals and events with a faintly Euro-socialist point-of-view.
Taken from this literary-visual angle, the poverty and desolation Tighe witnesses seem to him to be the inevitable fruits of capitalism, the standard elitist-intellectual Euro-cliché now for nearly eight decades. This flies in the face of the fact, however, that the bleak landscape he sees is really the handiwork of successive, relentless Communist dictatorships. Their brutality and lack of imagination are starkly reflected in the barracks-like, ill-constructed non-architectures of workers’ apartment blocks that pass randomly, like the near-desert landscapes, through the train’s dust-clouded windows.
On the other hand, Tighe gets it right, as few do, when he comments on the peculiar evil genius of China’s current, almost metaphysical faux-capitalism—a ruthless, state-sponsored, market-based production megacomplex whose sheer rapaciousness and cold efficiency would awe even the likes of Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan were they alive today. Tighe is also good on the utter corruption of the Russian bureaucracy he encounters, illustrating convincingly that the more Valery Putin’s ex-Soviet Union changes the more it tends to remain the same.
While well articulated by its author, Tighe’s Journey may ultimately find its most appropriate home as a physical book, the kind of popular “travel narrative” that was very much in vogue throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a full-length theater piece—the apparent eventual intention—Journey’s essentially static nature would make it a tough box office sell in most venues.
In a lighter vein, Sorcha Kenny’s My Life in Dresses takes a vaguely similar, travel journal-like approach to a very different subject: women’s dresses and the wealth of magic and meaning they hold for their owners. Aided by a friend running the visuals from a MacBook, Kenny’s pocket social commentary is like the film “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” It’s a non-linear narrative of the way in which even the most mundane of dresses can embody the emotional high- and low-points of women’s lives given the relationships and social structures that each garment comes to symbolize.
As presented by the author, the excerpt shown to Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre audience was amusing, warm-hearted, and very down-home. In kind of a low-key feminist way, Kenny is able to demonstrate the warmth, the closeness, and the centrality of friends and family in women’s lives. Some might accuse her piece of being nothing more than a live, theatrical “chick flick.” But time out. Wrong answer. It goes deeper than that.
Having, in her view, wrongly given away a dress her mother had once worn and she had once used, Kenny confesses that she’s still looking for it today—to the point where she passes around a fabric sample from the original as well as displaying a lost-and-found ad she’s been running for years. Obviously, she’s looking for a portion of her past that she’s carelessly discarded. She badly wants those emotions back. And don’t we all? There’s a simple, human universality in this that transcends its presentation.
But perhaps most touching of all in this excerpt was Kenny’s encounter with an old gent whose dress-owning wife of many years had passed away. He’s happy to be interviewed by Kenny, and shares with her a love poem he’d written to his bride-to-be many decades past.
With its simple rhymes and surprisingly steady meter, the poem seems on the surface to be the trite product of a sentimental amateur. Which, on one level, it is. But the depth of its deep, abiding love and sincerity—so fresh and startling in today’s Age of Irony—caught the audience by surprise.
On a lighter note still, Niamh McCann’s Welcome to the Forty Foot, is a funny, eccentric, one-woman show—again supplemented by filmed visuals—detailing the odd antics of a longstanding, informal Irish “Polar Bear Club.” You know, those goofy folks who insist on taking a plunge in the frigid winter waters. In this case, the eccentric beach-goers make use of a sandy strand, locally known as “Forty Foot,” that spreads out near the ancient Martello tower south of Dublin once made famous by the writings of James Joyce.
With a hilarious backdrop of amateur films the likes of which you might catch late at night on TrueTV’s “World’s Dumbest” series, McCann describes how local bathers, gluttons for wintry punishment, view their bone-chilling exploits in the Irish Sea as invigorating and healthful. This even goes for the oldsters, a stalwart lot that seems to dominate this beach demographic. Surprisingly—given how prudish Ireland was even through roughly 1980—many grandpas take their icy plunge in the nude. Nobody, including the little old ladies on the breakwall and, presumably, the gardae (the Irish police), seems to care.
Peeling off her winter clothes down to her tank suit, McCann narrates her own exhilarating swim in the midst of these proceedings. The whole thing is impossibly silly, but entertaining in the way “World’s Dumbest” is entertaining. You simply can’t believe people would do this, but…well, there they are, doing it.
No, Forty Foot is not high art. But, taken in context, it’s certainly a pocket documentary of the most honest sort, relating better than most, how much life has really changed in the land of Saints and Sinners over the last quarter century.
Although third in the presentation order during Thursday evening’s opening night performances, Matthew P. Morris’ My Body Travels was without a doubt the most polished presentation of the four, embodying the edgier, more daring aspects of a prototypical fringe festival.
Actually, calling Morris’ piece a “presentation” does it a disservice. It’s a beautifully choreographed, highly provocative dance piece, employing music, motion, and pantomime rather than words, to express the mysteries—and confusions—of gender orientation among the sexually ambivalent. Surprisingly, it’s billed as Morris’ “first solo piece,” which seems quite astonishing, given this dancer-choreographer’s confidence and self-assurance as a performer.
There’s no plot to Morris’ dance piece per se. It resembled the other three presentations only in the sense that it’s ultimately a highly personal narrative that yields its secrets gradually and largely without clear definition.
The piece commences with the elaborately tattooed and very pierced Morris entering Mead’s black box space outrageously clad in a jumbled mixture of male and female garments, including a man’s shoe on one foot and a lady’s high heel on the other. The difficulties of executing competent dance moves aside in such a garb, the symbols of gender confusion are clear here from the outset.
Our scene then morphs into a dream sequence where Morris becomes more explicitly male. It finally concludes as he sheds the surface trappings of his garments entirely to become…what? Primal male? Female? Androgynous? Perhaps that’s the artistic point. We get to imagine. We get to choose where we’ll identify. If indeed we can identify at all.
Running just under a half hour, Morris’ dance composition is in turn elegant, weird, coherent, confused, sweet, vulgar, and highly individualistic. It’s the type of piece that will offend some, transfix others, and leave few indifferent.
Conclusion: Of the four Dublin Fringe performance pieces presented via Solas Nua last weekend, Morris’ was clearly the edgiest, the most provocative, and the most polished. It’s actually ready for prime time right now, although given its offbeat originality, one wonders what its ideal venue ultimately might be.
Solas Nua’s second Project Brand New ran Feb 17 – 19, 2011 in the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint Gallery, Washington, DC.