Friday, May 26, 2017

Arlington and Rooms - Studies of Isolation

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Playwright Enda Walsh examines those caught up in situations of oppression and loneliness with his works Arlington and Rooms. Vastly different in their presentation and execution, the two pieces nonetheless share many common elements.

In Rooms, a performance piece presented by the Irish Arts Center, the audience is led into a space containing three separate yet distinct areas. The cluttered bedroom of a six-year old child; the faded and musty-smelling hotel "Room 303"; and a long, narrow galley style kitchen. Said kitchen almost antiseptic in nature until one starts to look inside the cupboards and appliances. The audience getting the chance to ingest the particulars of each location while listening to the disembodied voices of those who were once the occupants.

In Arlington, set in a future time and done in a more traditional theatrical manner, a young woman named Isla (Charlie Murphy), has been alone in a locked room for over 20 years, and continually monitored for all that time. She spending her days in a never-altering routine, all the while hoping the number she was assigned will finally be called, thus signaling the end of her confinement. Or at least offering her the chance to go somewhere else.

On this particular day however, things are suddenly different. Starting with an unexpected burst of sound, followed by a strange voice coming over the loudspeaker. The voice belonging to a Young Man (Hugh O'Conor) who is Isla’s new observer. His task being to monitor her actions to the smallest detail via the microphones and surveillance cameras strategically placed about the room. Most importantly, his task is to keep Isla occupied so she won't have too much time to think about what's happening outside her area of confinement.

The irony here is that for the first time since Isla can remember, she's the one who’s in charge. She having been there so long, she knows exactly the path the conversation with her monitor is supposed to take. Her new keeper, for want of a better word, being too busily trying to acclimate to his position to take control. As a result, the two begin to connect on a level far more personal than Isla ever did with her previous observer. It also becomes quickly apparent that while the Young Man is monitoring Isla, someone else is monitoring him. As made clear by an ominous beeping. One which sounds whenever he strays too far from his pre-assigned duties.

Where the different spaces of Rooms are filled with minute details - from a model of the solar system on the ceiling of the child's bedroom; to a Gideon Bible in the hotel room; to broken dishes in the kitchen - Isla's space in Arlington has a completely antiseptic feel to it. Her room containing a plastic plant and chair, an empty fish tank - with water but no fish - and harsh white lighting. The attempt here being to empty the room of any personality whatsoever.

Tautly presented and fascinating to experience, the two plays focus on individual freedom, as seen through different points and circumstances in people's lives. Isla wants nothing more than to leave her prison, and the constant everyday repetition her life has become. Meanwhile, the now-grown woman who lived in the little girl's room once upon a time, would do anything to return there after being in the outside world for so long. In the kitchen, a housewife threatens to have a meltdown over how her life has turned out, but finds herself unable, or unwilling to change her circumstances. In "Room 303", after a long and checkered life, an aging man is dying alone. Yet he is not yet ready to close his eyes forever and give up the fight. Be his enemy time or a very persistent fly that keeps coming around.

In Rooms the choices one has made in life is up to each individual. In Arlington, that choice has been taken away entirely. Something Isla learns when she is unexpectedly afforded a glimpse of what is happening, and what has happened, beyond her enclosure. She seeing the effects of a society determined to protect people from themselves. The full explanation of this, when it comes, is devastating.

In the end, the only thing worth holding onto for any of the people presented is the belief that they matter. To themselves, if no one else. It is their continual attempts to reassure themselves of this fact which forms the crux of both pieces. Walsh also showing that perhaps the only true escape is through own dreams. It being the one place the harshness of reality cannot reach. At least not yet.

Murphy is excellent as Isla, a woman long since resigned to her situation, until circumstances beyond her control present her with a new outlook. O'Conor is very good as a man used to doing what he's told and not making waves, until the chance to observe Isla first-hand offers him new insights on what just what he's involved in.

The most compelling fact of all is that each of the characters presented - be they seen in the flesh or only heard - feel totally real. Walsh, who also handles the directing chores in Arlington, strongly combining the oppressiveness of the various situations with glimmers of hope. A hope which flickers brightly at some moments only to be harshly extinguished in others.
Presenting varying viewpoints of an individual standing alone against the harshness that life and circumstances can bring, Arlington and Rooms show quite clearly that what ultimately matters is the spirit within.  Both shows will leave you thinking hard about what you’ve seen, which is just about the best thing a work of theatre can do.

by Edna Walsh
"Room 303" (featuring the voice of Niall Buggy)
"A Girl's Bedroom" (featuring the voice of Charlie Murphy)
"Kitchen" (featuring the voice of Eileen Walsh)

Presented by the Irish Arts Center at Cybert Tire, site of the future home of the Irish Arts Center
726 11th Avenue (near 51st Street)

Originally presented at Galway International Arts Festival

Running Time: 50 Minutes
Closes, June 4, 2017

Written and directed by Edna Walsh

Featuring: Charlie Murphy (Isla), Hugh O'Conor (Young Man), Oona Doherty (Young Woman), Eanna Breathnach, Olwen Fouéré. Helen Norton, Stephen Rae (Voices)

Choreographer: Emma Martin
Composer: Teho Teardo
Designer: Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Sound Designer: Helen Atkinson
Video Designer: Jack Phelan
Associated Sound Designer: Joel Price

Presented at St. Ann's Warehouse
45 Water Street
Dumbo, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-354-8779 or
Running time, 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes May 28, 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

Happy Days - Not Always Happy, But a Riveting Tale

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Denial becomes a powerful weapon of survival in the Yale Repertory Theatre's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. The show running through May 28 at Theatre for a New Audience.

The play opens with a woman named Winnie (Diane Wiest) buried up to her waist on the side of a mountain, apparently unable to get free. Nor does she seem to want to do so. This evident in how she has clearly prepared for her situation. Beside her is a large handbag containing such objects as a hair brush, comb, toothbrush, and a gun. This last object clearly having a special meaning for her.

Winnie's only companion is her husband Willie (Jarlath Conroy). A somewhat older man also buried on the mountainside, though he is able to emerge from his own confinement whenever he desires. Winnie's attitude towards her husband giving the audience an idea of the couple's relationship. One that may have been quite loving at one time, but, at least for Winnie, has since turned sour. She seldom passing up a chance to get in a verbal dig at her spouse. From her chiding to take care he doesn't get sunburn, to lecturing Willie on the proper way for him to get in and out of his own resting place, Winnie is often unrelenting in her stream of condescending comments. The irony of course, is that because of her own condition Winnie is now quite dependant on Willie for anything that requires movement farther away than what her arms can reach.

Yet despite Winnie's circumstances, she seems to be quite secure. She continually saying aloud what a happy day it is. A day where nothing has gone wrong and where there are absolutely no problems present. Though one must wonder if she actually means this or rather is trying to convince herself it is true. There's also the question of why she is buried on the hill, and what she waiting for there. These issues taking on a more urgent air when the curtain opens on act two with Winnie now buried up to her neck.

Beckett is famous for not providing easy answers in his plays, as well as forcing his characters to make decisions on their own; rather than having circumstances make it for them. Both premises are clearly in evidence here. Has Winnie given up on life and simply waiting for the elements to overwhelm her, or is there something more at work? At one point Winnie asks "is everybody dead?", begging the question if Winnie is one of the last, if not the last, survivor of some global catastrophe. Or is her isolation actually a metaphor for a terrible loneliness she feels? A loneliness arising from being trapped in the suffocating sameness of a life not fully lived, and where she has finally reached a point where she simply said, "enough".

Another interesting ritual Winnie undertakes is her daily practice of praying. With the underlying question being just what she is praying for.

Wiest is at the top of her game as Winnie, bringing the character fully to life in a tour-de-force performance. Despite the challenges of performing in an increasingly constrained position, she projects more than enough power and presence to pull it all. Her tones changing from matter-of-fact to despair to resignation throughout, yet always delivered with a strong impact. Conroy does well as the often unseen Willie. His role mostly a sounding board for Winnie's remarks and actions, but always offering another piece to the scenario that's being presented. Including a significant sequence which, like all the others, offers far more than just one possibility.

Scenic designer Izmir Ickbal's set of the mountain is wonderfully done. The overall effect, thanks also to the work of lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge and sound designer Kate Marvin feeling totally realistic. James Bundy's direction strongly guides the story, allowing the work of the various creative participants to seamlessly blend together to show a situation where nothing may be what it seems.
Masterfully done, this production of Happy Days presents a powerful a view of a woman in the middle of a very personal journey. Though where she's going and where she's been is a matter left up to every member of the audience.

Happy Days

by Samuel Beckett

Featuring: Diane Wiest (Winnie), Jarlath Conroy (Willie)

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal
Costume Designer: Alexae Visel
Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson
Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf
Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting/Laura Schutzel, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery
Assistant Stage Manager: Helen Muller
Press Representative: Blake Zidell & Associates
General Manager: Michael Page

Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: May 28, 2017