Multiply Miss Havisham by three, add Irish accents and a peculiarly compelling sense of the macabre and you have Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, the female-driven companion piece to Mr. Walsh’s father and sons play, The Walworth Farce, also being staged at Studio Theatre as part of the New Ireland Festival.
Judging from these two plays, the new Ireland is neither cozy nor picturesque. The emphasis on mythmaking and storytelling and the rapturous wordsmithing remain, but the modern-day Emerald Isle is a dark and broken place.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the setting for New Electric Ballroom, the isolated Irish fishing village where three sisters live, presumably in the house they grew up in. Two of the siblings, Clara (Nancy Robinette) and Breda (Sybil Lines) are pushing 60, but wear the garish eye shadow and lipstick of adolescents. The youngest sister, Ada (Jennifer Mendenhall), with her scraped back hair and thickly worsted sweater and pants, is the plainer of the three but also the only one with any semblance of ties to the outside world.
Each day, like some housebound and ceaseless production of Waiting for Godot, Clara and Breda re-enact a life-changing event of heartbreak from their youth. Both sisters, poised on the edge of “something new,” ventured to a rural dance club, the New Electric Ballroom, for a backstage assignation with a touring teen idol. Clara is the naïve and breathlessly romantic counterpart to the tough, “bad girl” posturing of Breda, but both are equally devastated when they are tossed aside by the singer in favor of a Doris Day-type blonde.
They flee back to the narrow confines of the village, which closes around them and never lets them go. The two shut-ins put on the show—complete with costumes, atmospheric lighting and sound effects—for Ada partly for entertainment, but primarily as a cautionary tale. It’s a Grimm’s fairytale for timid adults, with Ada cast as the never-been-kissed princess imprisoned by the spell of words cast by her mad sisters.
As unlikely a princess as Ada is, her “prince” is even more hapless. He is Patsy (Liam Craig), a lonely fishmonger searching for his life’s purpose whose seafood deliveries are as predictable as the tides. Clara, sensing a kindred outcast spirit, invites Patsy in to become part of their bizarre daily ritual and to also perhaps rescue Ada.
Matt Torney directs this oddball scene with a beguiling matter-of-factness that emphasizes both the magical and brutish elements of the play. This deadpan approach also brings out the humor, often mordant, inherent in Mr. Walsh’s luscious, language-drunk dialogue.
All the characters are “stamped by story” and Mr. Walsh reveals the dual nature of words as a connective and destructive force by crafting reeling, almost delirious monologues delivered by the actors almost as a desperate, purging torrent. This is most keenly seen in Patsy’s speech near the end of the play, as he reluctantly joins the sisters’ story but then awakens to the sense of possibility suddenly stretching before him. He takes this chance and runs with it, giddy with potential scenarios laid out like Sunday dinner on the best china, before fears and doubt and habit begin to creep in.
The cast meets and exceeds the demands of the garrulous play, starting with Mr. Craig’s Patsy, who appears rather buffoonish at the beginning, cheerfully recounting the ailments and afflictions of the villagers, but then you realize it is lonesomeness that has made him small of mind and heart. Miss Robinette captures the fragility and willfulness of the soft-hearted Clara, while Miss Lines embodies the brass and bossiness of alpha sister Breda. Miss Mendenhall plays Ada as someone sleepwalking through life, a woman not just startled but assaulted by sunlight, doors swinging open and other vestiges of the world clawing at her just beyond the front stoop.
In The New Electric Ballroom, there’s no “happily,” just “ever after,” as the characters assemble to once again to tell the story that shapes and scars them and holds them ever firmly fixed in place.
The New Electric Ballroom is scheduled to run thru May 1, 2011 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
The New Electric Ballroom
by Enda Walsh
Directed By Matt Torney
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
- Sophie Gilbert . WashingtonianWilliam Alburque . BrightestYoungThingsChris Klimek . Washington City PaperPeter Marks . Washington Post
Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You
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