The Infernal Beauty of Vaudeville
How the Dead Haunt Us in The Walworth Farce and Tre
In the final moments of the first act of The Walworth Farce, three Irishmen—a demented father and his two adult sons who never leave home except to go to the grocery store—have to answer the front door.
They live in a tiny apartment with crappy brown carpet, a grease-spattered kitchen, lath peeking through the busted plaster on the walls, and five deadbolts on the door to protect them from the outside world that, the father warns his sons, is full of "bad people" who want to hurt them. They've been living this way for 20 years.
When the doorbell rings, one of the brothers grabs a knife and, shaking with fear, unlocks the five deadbolts. The visitor is just a young South London woman from the nearby grocery store who has come to deliver some bags the other brother left behind that morning. Like all good, smiling innocents in gothic horror stories, she has no idea what she's walking into—but the audience knows just enough to be afraid.
This 2009 play by Enda Walsh, who was born in Ireland but lives in London, fits snugly in the lineage of dire tragicomedies—disturbing, funny, disturbingly funny—by other Irish writers in voluntary exile. Like stories by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh, and Shane MacGowan, The Walworth Farce is fueled by caustic and self-loathing humor, as well as the engulfing horror of mundane people repeating inane and destructive patterns to distract themselves from their own existential dread. It's vaudeville from hell—and their clowning reveals the contours of their sadness.
Each day, the father (played by Peter Crook with the frightening, manic zest of Jack Nicholson in The Shining) and his sons (Darragh Kennan and Peter Dylan O'Connor, both excellent as the confused and terrorized shut-ins) pathologically re-perform a "play" in their apartment that explains why the father had to flee from Ireland 20 years ago and how he's definitely not responsible for the bloody death of his brother and some other family members back in Cork. When the Farce characters are "in character" for their play-within-a-play, they perform clichéd, minstrel-show versions of themselves—Irish bumpkins with exaggerated accents and drinking habits. Their daily performance ritual includes two brothers drinking lager at their mother's wake, the Clancy Brothers' old Irish-nationalist song "A Nation Once Again," and one of the caricatures saying to another: "You're on your knees, Paddy." "So I am!" he replies. "But sure, isn't every Irishman! ERIN GO BRAGH!" Then he flops onto the floor, dead.
The story they keep performing for themselves is so complicated, with so many subplots, characters, and machinations, it's not worth parsing. Their real lives, by contrast, are brutally simple—the three men are so spiritually disfigured with confusion, shame, and grief, they've become monsters.
Despite itself, Farce can be funny. In another passage, one character in the play-within-a-play asks another if he's embarrassed by his own kin: "Embarrassed of my own little brother?" he responds. "A brother so ugly that when he was born, the doctors thought our mother had pushed out her perforated poisoned liver? A man who, as a boy, was so unpopular that even his imaginary friends would beat him up? A brother so stupid that for 20 years he thought that Irish dancing was a running event for people who were afraid to travel?" Even when it's joking, Farce hurts.
Allison Strickland as the visitor who appears at the end of act one is the audience's surrogate—laughing at the antics of these three goofballs, then slowly realizing she's walked into a homemade mental asylum where the sickest patient (the father) is calling all the shots. Her performance is appropriately astringent. She's bracingly clear and sane, the barometer that reminds us not to get too comfortable with the family's violent slapstick—and a reminder that sometimes we all need an outside observer to tell us when our daily routines are getting the better of our sanity.
Death and grief have more somber reverberations in Tre, a world premiere by the dance company the New Animals. Five years ago, the company's cofounder, a student at Cornish College of the Arts named Joe Sodd III, was stabbed to death in his hometown of Minneapolis. Now the Animals, led in part by choreographer Markeith Wiley, are ready to share a piece about it. Tre begins with dozens of red plastic cups (the kind often seen at college parties) with a little bit of brown liquor in each sitting on the stage. Audience members are encouraged to take one and hold onto it until the four dancers walk into the theater to toast the crowd and each other.
That opening gesture is indicative of Tre as a whole, which is part party and part wake. In some segments, Wiley and the rest perform hybrid b-boy movements, spinning in slow, muted circles on the floor and twisting their spines in corkscrew shapes. In others, they quietly hold each other in a four-person knot of hugging and (at least on opening night) sniffling. During one passage, the dancers sit in four corners of the room while recorded recollections of Sodd play over speakers, too many at once to understand what any single one of them is saying. The jumble of voices seems to indicate that no matter how many words—eulogies, stories, reminiscences—we throw at grief, we can never fill its void.
Dance (and dance theater) about personal loss can be a tough sell to an audience of people who do not personally know the deceased or the bereaved—and at times, Tre feels more like a private ritual with an invited audience than a dance work that was made for the general public. But it also has an atmosphere of urgency and necessity and, on opening night, moved some audience members to tears. For better and for worse, Tre is a little less like a typical dance performance and a little more like church.