In the final five minutes of her life, a nameless hot corn girl (Tia Shearer) shivers in the cold winds off the Atlantic, argues with her pimp, Eddie Farrell (Michael Kevin Darnall), and worries about coyotes. And then, the night suddenly fills with creatures far more dangerous than any coyote. She feels the cold sharp steel penetrate her stomach, move upward, and then – darkness, and nothing.
It is all darkness and nothingness for Farrell, as well – himself a shivering coyote of a man, foul-mouthed and fierce, yet rootless and vulnerable. He is an orphan, who has been taken under the wing of Sweeney (Randolph Curtis Rand), another criminal, albeit one with better manners. It is 1887, or thereabouts, and Eddie Farrell is King of the Whyos, an Irish gang in Coney Island. But his mojo has been seriously disturbed, and now he wants to open a pet shop. You see, he’s been given a vision of the future. In it, a man orders black bean soup.
The man is Edward Farrell (Séamus Miller), and Eddie – is this beginning to sound like a Twilight Zone episode? – is going to be catapulted into 1987 to meet him. But first he will be given a mission by Sweeney. And once borne into the future, he finds himself at a Coney Island sideshow, with Ruby (Elliot Bales), the man with the skin of an alligator; his wife, the mute, hirsute Priscilla (Bette Cassatt) and the 400-pound Lolly (Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi).
In Eddie’s day they would be known as Freaks but of course the true freak is Eddie himself, who imports his kill-or-be-killed brio from a time and place where it made him king to a time and a place where it means nothing. He meets Ada Ann (Shearer), the doppelganger of the girl he just had killed, who now works in an aquarium and explains sea lions to curious tourists. And he meets Edward Farrell, a lawyer who specializes in false sincerity, and shares his Sweeney-given mission (we do not know what it is) with him.
Barbara Wiechmann’s dense, complicated play is full of narrative questions, not all of which get answered during our two-and-a-half-hour traffic of the Spooky Action play. Why does Eddie’s latest murder, among all those he doubtlessly organized, turn him against his criminal life? What mission does Sweeney give him, and why? What makes Eddie step so heedlessly a hundred or so years into the future? Why, in 1987, is religion such a force that it gives purpose to Ruby and Priscilla and makes Ada Ann an orphan? What mission did Eddie give Edward, and, at the end, did Edward carry it out? And for God’s sake, why is Sweeney wandering into the late twentieth century to sing songs (in good voice) from his own time?
But theater, like religion, doesn’t answer all questions, instead leaving some for faith or speculation. (Why did Lear retire while he still had his vigor, and leave his kingdom to his children?) The theater’s first obligation is to work our intellect and emotions, and Last of the Whyos does just that. Primary responsibility for that belongs to Darnall, an astonishingly versatile actor who manages to make Eddie terrifying enough so that your first reaction upon seeing him will be to shrink in your seat, but sympathetic in his dour, snarling way. His Eddie is a dangerous animal caught in a leg trap, fierce in his own environment but helpless in the set of circumstances within which he finds himself.
The other actors replicate this duality. Shearer as Ada Ann is immensely satisfying, a tough-minded, risk-taking survivor whose one vulnerability – openness to love – leaves her as exposed as a lamb in a coyote den. Bales is a big man with a formidable stage presence which radiates strength and well-being, but Ruby, too, has his vulnerability: a God he worships and adores but who makes him fearful and sad. Edidi’s Lolly is – the cliché is unavoidable – fat and sassy, but also unutterably lonely. And Miller’s Edward Farrell is the negative image of the Whyo from the past; his loving sweetness has a creepy stench to it, just as Eddie’s foul bravado hides vulnerability and even, occasionally, compassion.
LAST OF THE WHYOS
Feb 4 – March 1
Spooky Action Theater
1810 16th St NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
If you’ve been to Spooky Action before, you know that the space is limited. It is basically a black box, and not a very big one at that. So how could they stage this immense play, with dozens of settings and eighteen characters?
The answer, in two words, is Rebecca Holderness. I have seen three plays directed by Holderness at Spooky Action, and in each one she manages to use the stage so inventively that it literally can save companies tens of thousands of dollars in production costs. In this one, she and stage designer Vicki R. Davis divide the stage into five impermanent compartments. One is meant to show Edward Farrell in isolation (or in passion with Ada Ann); the others may be the kitchen of Ruby and Priscilla’s home, or the pet shop, or the place where Eddie and Lolly have a heart-to-heart, or the dock where the corn girl is killed. I would say it is inspired except I expect this brilliance is routine for Holderness.
I know theatreWashington has done a great deal of critical thinking about the Helen Hayes awards, so I’m reluctant to come up with a new suggestion. But if they ever decide to give an award for directorial inventiveness, Holderness is my candidate.
The Last of the Whyos by Barbara Weichmann . Director: Rebecca Holderness, assisted by Kevin Crawford. Featuring Tia Shearer, Michael Kevin Darnall, Ryan Alan Jones, Sha Golanski, Elliot Bales, Matthew Marcus, Stephen Krzyzanowski, Séamus Miller, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, Bette Cassatt, and Randolph Curtis Rand. Set design: Vicki R. Davis . Lighting design: Matthew E. Adelson . Sound design: David Crandall. Costume design: Erik Reagan Teague . Properties: Larry Rodman . Fight choreography: Claudia Rosales and Brad Waller. Stage manager: Sarah Magno . Produced by Spooky Action Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Fred Bulsara says
The one thing two reviewers point out is that the real stars of the evening are the director and set designer. Their inventive way to propel a very disproportionate storyline into something reasonbly interesting is nothing short of inspired. Beyond this, I wondered why a play that is quite obviously not fully fleshed out for production was given just that. It was confusing, inconsistent, and very long! Unless you are O’Neil or Miller, or perhaps now Kushner, no american play should be longer than two plus hours. By the second act I felt imprisoned since the exit is closed off as part of the playing area. What was this play’s intent???????? Geneology as way to explain how a decendent of an 19th century Irish gang leader became a sort of American Psycho in the greedy, “me” generation of the 80’s? A paen to Coney Island’s sordid history? A more succint and clearly defined throughline could have existed within such a concept. Here, it did not….. As such, the director managed to weave together a production that was pleasing…at least for the first act. I came to see the actors playing Sweeny and Eddie. The latter cast an indelible mark as a part of The Wire, and I was looking forward to seeing what he’d do in this very different role. Alas, while I think he has skill, my opinion was that he was miscast in an already high demanding role that sometimes steers even a good actor into repetition. And geez, he was surrounded that many years ago by a bevy of actors that bled menacing and dangerous from every pore! To the point, I never for second believed taht this guy was a roughnecked thug who stole and stabbed. That needs to be there first before, we can see the redemption. The actor definitely conveys the latter. But without that transition, we’re never fully invested in his journey. The actress playing the dual century love interest was very good, albeit a bit too polished and together and sharp to convincingly have one believe she’s a lost soul on a mission. Move past that, and she gave a strong and fully realized performance. On the other hand, the only negative cirticism I can attribute to Sweeny is that there wre only two scenes with him. He was excellent! A wonderfully seasoned actor who took a fairly one note role and fleshed it out completely, making him dashing, cunning, humorous, and ever slightly so creepy. Every time he came into the scene, I relaxed, smiled, and knew I could then be fully invested in the world. Particular note should be given to the young actor with the long hair in the first half of the first act who managed to create an interpretation that made a believable urchin of him while also making him charming……. The use of an African American Transgender performer as the fat lady was classic in the sense of true avante garde church basement theater borne of NY’s off broadway movement, and the actress delivers a wonderfully entertaining and captivating character. Whether intended or not, the use of this actress in a part of someone who is considered fringe, outcast, lonely and misunderstood adds an inspired layer to the role that adds a dynamic to a part that in lesser hands may also have been formulaic. The show is a good lesson for directors on how to piece and mold a production where an unsteady script, certain miscasting, and a flaccid theme or throughline can still be interesting to a point.