Born in Dublin in 1967, playwright Enda Walsh has established an impressive reputation in his native Ireland as well as Great Britain. Currently a resident of London, he’s authored over a dozen plays—most quite successful—as well as radio dramas for RTÉ (the Irish broadcasting service) and the screenplay for the film “Disco Pigs.” But in spite of his many accomplishments, he’s not very well known on this side of the Atlantic, and only been rarely produced here in Washington.
The Studio Theatre’s new artistic director, David Muse, aims to remedy that situation with this week’s launch of “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival.” Why Enda Walsh? “Enda Walsh is an astonishing writer,” says Muse, “but he’s not well known in this country. Studio wanted to meet this need.”
Studio’s Irish festivities begin, appropriately, during this St. Paddy’s Day week with performances of Walsh’s newest drama, Penelope, which debuted in Europe just last year. The festival—which continues through May 2, is being underwritten by Culture Ireland as part of “Imagine Ireland,” a yearlong effort devoted to highlighting the Irish arts in the United States.
What really drew Muse into Enda Walsh’s world is this playwright’s deep grasp of the way stories, words, and metaphors provide a key to the human soul—elements Studio has always taken seriously with regard to its choice of dramas to produce.
“Enda’s plays feel like they’re Studio plays in a big way,” says Muse. “He’s a contemporary master wordsmith, and his plays focus on language and wordplay. They are plays with great emotion, great opportunities, scene-stopping action. They really give a theater company something to lock onto.”
Studio’s new literary director, Adrien Hansel, agrees. While there’s considerable surface entertainment value in Walsh’s plays, what’s really interesting is the way ideas percolate below that surface. “It’s the deep structure that Enda Walsh is really up to,” she says.
Penelope, the play that opens the festival this week, is a case in point. Based on—you guessed it—Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is the playwright’s bizarre contemporary reimagining of events occurring just prior to Odysseus’ dramatic homecoming from his post-Trojan War wanderings. Brought to Studio by Galway’s internationally renowned Druid Theatre troupe and directed by Mikel Murphy, Walsh’s Penelope recasts the persistent suitors of Odysseus’ long-suffering wife as a quartet of aging contemporary dudes who apparently have nothing better to do with their lives.
Working out various middle-aged crises, they lounge about in Penelope’s long-empty swimming pool, guzzling whatever adult beverages happen to be available. Kvetching amongst themselves when they’re not pitching Odysseus’ alleged widow with their tired metaphorical plumage displays, they actually seem more interested in the philosophical meaning of their own empty lives than with the actual goal at hand.
“These are people who get caught up in the story they’re telling,” says Hansel. “There’s a ritualized way they tell others about their lives. There’s a ravishing beauty of language here, an aching reality of desire that language both describes and covers up. It’s strangely human stuff,” she continues, with “real emotional content beneath the style. You get the strong sense of something intensely Catholic, intensely Irish, yet also universal.”
To transform this eccentric, individualistic Irish content into stage reality, Studio found they had to acquire a new expertise in international logistics almost overnight. For starters, both Muse and Hansel developed close relationships with the Irish cast and crew in the months preceding the festival.
“Challenge number one was to figure out how to host an international festival,” says Muse. “We literally had to make sure everyone could get here, work through the travel kerfuffles, handle the logistics of building three shows and juggling two casts,” says Hansel, who just joined Studio in November after a successful career with Louisville, Kentucky’s highly regarded annual “Humana Festival” where she was in charge of new play development. Even with all this experience, though, Hansel observes that the Enda Walsh Festival proved to be “a good trial by fire.”
One of the festival’s main challenges turned out to be Penelope’s quirky set: an empty swimming pool surmounted by a glassed-in balcony from which Penelope could view her suitors and view their ongoing pitches. “The play was designed for proscenium theaters,” says Muse. “All our stages are thrust, so the set they were bringing wouldn’t fit. We had to collaborate with their set designer to redesign things to fit into one of our spaces. So she had to arrive early and advise us on redesigning and rebuilding the set to fit.”
Penelope is just the metaphorical tip of the iceberg for this Studio festival. Also on tap are two more of Walsh’s plays, The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom; a conversation with both the playwright and Druid artistic director Garry Hynes following the St. Patrick’s Day evening performance of Penelope; various readings, seminars, and panel discussions; a showing of “Hunger,” a biopic on the life of the legendary IRA hunger striker for which Walsh wrote the screenplay; a reading by Studio’s own company of Doldrum Bay, a contemporary drama by Irish actress-turned-playwright Hilary Fannin; and a number of additional events.
While Penelope is a Druid import, Studio actors will be handling the chores for The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom themselves. The former, described on Studio’s website as a “sinister twist on high farce,” delves deeply into a troubled family’s history. Electric Ballroom focuses on the reminiscences of three aging Irish sisters that are interrupted by a visitor who might somehow offer them an escape from the prison of their past.
The Enda Walsh Festival is, in effect, the initial installment of a long-range plan to bring more international work to Studio, according to Muse. For him, it’s intuitively obvious. “Washington is a cosmopolitan, international city. It’s logical to introduce, from time to time, exciting new playwrights from outside our own country.”
What became the Enda Walsh Festival was actually “inherited” from Studio’s previous leadership which had already programmed Walsh’s plays into the current season before Muse took over Studio’s artistic helm. Running with what was already on the books, Muse, with Hansel’s assistance, evolved this into an actual festival, including all the additional events and seminars.
And why not? “Studio is a good place to do this kind of festival,” he says. “It’s a facility that has four theaters on site, enabling us to program productions in interesting ways, highlighting playwrights, themes, and countries in an interesting way, backing up the plays with additional programming.”
“Putting on a festival,” he continues, “creates added interest, interesting places where people and ideas can intersect.”
That’s certainly the idea behind the festival’s April 13 Symposium on New Irish Arts. The topic: “Walsh and the Irish Tradition.” One of the panelists is Georgetown University professor George O’Brien who’s long been immersed in Irish arts and literature.
O’Brien notes that a number of themes have surfaced in Irish literature and drama over the last two or three decades. A new, tougher, more international literature has been evolving, largely growing out of Ireland’s belated but vigorous response to modernization and, in some ways, a perceived loss of national identity.
In particular, he notes, given recent events—including Ireland’s own scandals involving priests preying upon children—one sees very few examples now of priests or the church in Irish drama. “The clergy are being seen now as irrelevant and the time of regarding the church as a central moral authority is kind of ignored now,” he says. One of the results is a focus, by current playwrights, that’s “more on the individual rather than dwelling on politics or religion.” Both entities used to be viewed as moral beacons. “But now, there’s no perceived support system,” says O’Brien, which makes for a very different kind of drama from the old Bing Crosby-Barry Fitzgerald era.
Now, Irish drama in particular is characterized by its utter unpredictability, a kind of individual quirkiness melded to trappings right out of Beckett and the theater of the absurd. Ireland’s recent generations of playwrights are “very irreverent, they don’t really make any assumptions,” says O’Brien. “They appeal to a new demographic. Old Irish stereotypes are thrown out and characters are unattached, if you like, to recognizable cultural norms.”
Enda Walsh, like Martin McDonogh—whose Cripple of Inishmaan was recently staged at the Kennedy Center by the Druid Theatre—is “a member of this irreverent generation,” says O’Brien, noting that the Druid has helped in the development of a number of new playwrights’ careers.
Walsh’s Penelope is a fine example of this current Irish iconoclasm. Here “you have characters who “speak with their hearts rather than grasp for an analytical understanding of where they stand in the scheme of things,” says O’Brien. “Some of them are lost romantics, still questing. But don’t know what they’re questing for.”
Unlike the older, hokier Irish plays and films, today’s Irish characters are complex, conflicted, and often confused, making their stories “somewhat more difficult to transmit in the somewhat facile way the media prefer,” says O’Brien.
No green beer here. No wise and witty Irish priests and nuns, saints and sinners. Today’s Emerald Isle—at least its urban environs and sensibilities—has evolved into a gritty, often tension-ridden locus, one that Studio’s audiences will get a chance to encounter up close and personal starting this week.
After the Enda Walsh Festival has come and gone, what’s on the horizon for Studio’s international future? David Muse is already busy formulating plans for different international theater productions. But festivals like this one won’t necessarily be an annual feature of each season.
“We’re going to announce our upcoming season in a couple of weeks,” says Muse, “so I can’t really talk about it right now except to say, going forward, we’re taking international writing seriously. It’s part of the beginning of a long journey we’re on.”