For one brief moment halfway through Cuchullain, Aaron stops and smells the roses. Walking along a quiet Belfast street in the middle of the night with two friends, he pauses, bends down, and sniffs the petals at his feet.
The moment is fleeting. Mere flowers can’t compete with the 24/7 hum of music, drugs, and girls pumping through his brain. So Aaron (Josh Sticklin) leaps back onto his roller coaster and careens into the next day of his non-stop life. That rose provides the only real pause in Rosemary Jenkinson’s fast and witty new play — the rest is breakneck fun from dawn through dusk to dawn again.
Those fortunate enough to catch Keegan’s world premiere of Jenkinson’s previous play Basra Boy last year will find a close sibling in Cuchullain. Once again, Sticklin is the single, high-endurance performer, and Abigail Isaac returns to direct.
Just like Basra Boy made exemplary use of Keegan’s existing set for their concurrent production of The Weir, this year’s antics take place atop, around, and within the set for Spring Awakening. And the level of energy Sticklin and Isaac hit together is once again powerful and dynamic.
Thematically, Jenkinson leads us through some thorny new thickets. Nineteen-year-old Aaron — a tireless and fun-loving egoist — may be the most fun guy at the party, but he hits his curves at perilously high speeds, testing his upper limits of stimulation. In his joyous, sweaty solo narrative of life at full speed, we catch plenty of troubling truths about addiction, aggression, and dependence.
Aaron’s juvie woes add up, essentially, to a junior Trainspotting. At a house party, he shares the bedroom with a flirty young girl without asking her age (generally a bad idea), flees the law and those bigger, tougher kids out to pound him, milks the welfare state, and dips dizzily back and forth from almost-sober to pill-bottle blitzed. For one memorably odd, Flight Club-inflected moment toward the end, his whole reality wins a hairline fracture. But objects in motion stay in motion, so off Aaron rides in his getaway car without a second thought. Whether the three-ring circus of fun he’s had — most of it both amusing and jaw-droppingly unsafe — will suck him back in and drain him dry later on remains to be seen.
Aaron’s world exists in midair, like a set of juggling balls, and it requires a crack team to keep everything gliding briskly along. Isaac, who directed Keegan’s Dancing at Lughnasa in 2010, parses the script with the focus owed to a musical score, demonstrating sharp work from second to second throughout the show. She triumphs in her collaboration with Sticklin, who brings the power and precision of a coiled spring to every little tweak, flick, and skip that makes Aaron such an inexhaustible adventurer.
Clothed in a t-shirt, jeans, and a pair of Converse All-Stars (plus a mysterious patch of blood on his side, explained only toward show’s end), Sticklin never lets the energy lag or the aerobics get sloppy. Whether he’s getting high in a public park, roaming the streets throwing snark at friends and passers-by, crashing parties, stealing, or evading his mum, Aaron’s cooked up a witty assessment of things. He is unquestionably the hot, bright nucleus toward which the strands of his chaotic city warp and gravitate. “I give her a kiss… she deserves it” he grins at one point. It’s a glorious brand of delusion — they can’t say you’re seeking out temptation when it’s all just falling in your lap, now can they?
It takes eighty minutes for Aaron to tow us through a day in the life, and all of them fly by. Sticklin’s pantomime, his many moments of portraying multiple characters, and his lusty hold on the dialect keep it fun even as Jenkinson’s script teeters nicely at moments on the brink of utter darkness. As Aaron proclaims, in defense of the trip: “It takes discipline to have as much fun as we do!”
Keegan Theatre’s production of Cuchullain runs thru July 1 (in rep with Spring Awakening) at Church Street Theatre, 1742 Church St NW, Washington, DC.
Written by Rosemary Jenkinson
Directed by Mark. A. Rhea and Abigail Isaac
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes without intermission