Monday, January 22, 2018

Ballyturk - Where The End Of The Road Is Just Out Of Sight

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

If "sleep is freedom", as one character points out in Enda Walsh's Ballyturk, then it follows that ignorance is bliss and knowledge offers an awareness that can be truly devastating. The play now having its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Two unnamed men - referred to as 1 (Tadhg Murphy) and 2 (Mikel Murfi) in the show program - are living in a somewhat homey, somewhat Spartan space. Exactly where and when this space is located and why the men are there, is unknown. The two have at least some creature comforts, such as fresh milk, tea and biscuits; along with a wide selection of music from which to chose. At the same time, there are hints of things being not quite right. Such as horizontal steel beams near the right rear ceiling, indicating the two might be in a cage where they can be observed from above. The cinderblock shower area also suggesting something one would see in a prison or, a locker room.

1 and 2 have seemingly long since settled into a daily routine. They eating, sleeping exercising, getting dressed, etc. all with the precision of a well-oiled machine, albeit with some enjoyable musical accompaniment. The majority of their time however, is spent describing the people and situations in the Irish village of Ballyturk. The two alternately acting as narrators for these scenarios, well as portraying the Ballyturk citizens themselves. Their actions reminding one of performers continually polishing their material in order to always keep it sounding fresh.

In the midst of the different actions that play out on stage, one soon begins to feel an overall presence of despair. Particularly with 1, the more emotional of the two men, who is also prone to what seems like epileptic attacks. 2 on the other hand, comes across as a more centered and level-headed individual. Yet behind all of their respective actions is the impression of something deeper lurking just beyond their field of comprehension. It's a feeling that only strengthens when we learn that one of the two may remember far more than he's let on; while trying very hard to deny that awareness.

1 and 2's lives are suddenly upended when another person (Olwen Fouéré) unexpectedly enters their domicile. Brusque and officious, she is there to offer the two men a choice. One which will change everything for the man who takes it.

In his plays, Walsh has often focused on the subject of isolation. People who find themselves, for whatever reason, butting heads against a cold and impersonal system that has made them feel cut off and alone. Some of Walsh's previous efforts in this vein include Arlington, Rooms and Misterman. Ballyturk being another such example. 

Also present in Ballyturk are clear elements of finality. Indeed, as the play continues to unfold, one can't help but wonder if these two men are trapped in some kind of limbo between this world and the next. Walsh himself has said he came up with the idea for Ballyturk while discussing the subject of death with his six year-old daughter. Though if one is looking through a definite through-line here, they're going to be disappointed. For Ballyturk is something meant to be experienced, rather than explained.

Walsh directs this production of his own work with a sure and steady hand, mixing silence with questions, and action with dancing - and a great use of the various songs. It's also interesting to note that the music source for the two men are vinyl records played on a turntable, with nothing more modern than a microwave in their possession. This again begging the question of how long the two men have been in this location - wherever it happens to be.

Murphy and Murfi work beautifully together as 1 and 2. Both characters at times, funny, angry, and always quite engaging. Especially when reeling off tales about Ballyturk, and the use of a yellow jumper (that's a sweater to Americans). The characters' actions also revealing a deep bond between the two. One built on trust and reliance, and which is hopefully strong enough to survive any disagreements that pop up along the way.

Fouéré is perfectly cast as the mysterious person who enters their lives. A seemingly bureaucratic type - as evidenced by her initial attitude, appearance and location from which she has arrived - she in actuality has the inner glimmerings of a onetime poet. As demonstrated in her speeches dealing with time, cigarettes and flying insects.

Jamie Vartan's design of both the room and what is found beyond is excellent. The set offering a nice blend of the austere, functional and elements of the personal tastes of 1 and 2. Helen Atkinson's sound design works beautifully, particularly in the opening and closing moments of the show.

Examining what might be beyond the here and now, and offering far more questions than answers, Ballyturk proves to be a probing and intellectual experience. And one definately worth seeing.

Written and Directed by Enda Walsh

Featuring: Tadhg Murphy (1), Mikel Murfi (2), Olwen Fouéré (3), Eanna Breathnach, Niall Buggy, Denise Gough, Pauline McLynn (Voices), Aaralyn M. Anderson and Brook Timber (Girl).

Composer: Teho Teardo
Designer: Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Sound Designer: Helen Atkinson

Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn

Co-Produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival

Tickets: 718-254-8778, 866-811-4111 or

Running Time: 90 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: January 28, 2018