Hazmat suits and country music in intriguing ‘Lippy’

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How it’s New York: Presented by Irish Arts Center and Abrons Arts Center, two NYC orgs, the production takes place downtown, in
©Ian Douglas

©Ian Douglas

the Lower East Side at the Henry Street Settlement.
How it’s Irish: Dead Centre is an Irish company, and the play was well received at the Dublin Fringe Festival.

Just because you are sending up what is pretentious doesn’t mean you aren’t being pretentious.

“Lippy,” a new work written by Ireland’s Dead Centre. company and Bush Moukarzel with what’s billed as “cameo-playwright” Mark O’Halloran, would do better to have the courage of its pretensions. When it goes straight for its heart– the the unknowability of human motivation, the difficulty of communication– it’s effective, often breathtaking. When it uses cleverness to deflect, it is merely arch, and wearying.

The presumably mainly devised work is based on a true story, or perhaps it would be closer to say inspired by a true story: the program note reads:

In 2000, in Leixlip, a small town just outside of Dublin, four women boarded themselves into their home and entered a suicide pact. They starved themselves.

But “Lippy” doesn’t  serve up a narrative or even a theory about this event. It’s more like a theatrical meditation. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with taking poetic license about a true story: Jean Genet did it in “The Maids” after all. But taking an arch approach, as “Lippy” often does, diminishes rather than explores.

The four, one on each side of the table, sway to the song almost imperceptibly, as if they can’t help it, as if they are in a trance. As if they are underwater flowers.

“Context is all,” says a character (The Lip Reader) before we go to the crime scene. But American audiences lack too much context. There are bits of dialogue in the home of the women that apparently were reported in the papers; you’ve got no way of knowing this, though. There is no intermission, just a character on stage who talks about a place where an intermission should be, and the sound of intermission noises. This is clever. This is arch. And diminishes the piece.

“Lippy” begins with a post-show discussion about a fictional, different play. The company chose to do this because:

We want to make original work and try to see what happens ‘after’ theatre. (The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’.) So a post-show talk seemed like a good place to start. The end is the beginning and yet you go on, as Beckett put it.

It’s about time somebody satirized a post-show discussion, and Dead Centre does a fine job, with the writer-director Moukarzel taking the role of a fatuous interviewer, who keeps trying to bring the discussion to commenting on a play he himself was in; Dan Reardon playing  The Lip Reader (hence the play’s title) and Adam Welsh playing Adam the Technician.

The Lip Reader, however, talks just a tad too much about the ambiguity of language and meaning, about “the words of the powerless.” We’re being told what to make of the play that is coming.  Very little of the talk has anything to do with the story that follows (except one scene in which The Lip Reader plays a flashback, screeching at his deaf daughter “did you see me in the papers,” misinterpreted by  many  reviewers that he was playing the father of the starved women.) The Lip Reader is connected to the crime story because the police hired him to interpret the women’s talk on CCTV, which was filmed at the market, shortly before they disappeared from public view. A demonstration of his skills on the interviewer shows his getting much of it hilariously wrong. The interviewer says:

I haven’t really prepared anything. I suppose I could tell you about going out last night.

And The Lip Reader says:

I have a dream about a thing. I was watching this. Can we go outside?

then again, he gets much of it right. Mostly the “And, er”, but definitely some of it.

©Ian Douglas

©Ian Douglas

This whole post-show pre-show scene goes on too long, despite some very funny YouTube clips of people putting words in Mitt Romney’s mouth. Then Welsh suddenly begins singing an odd little found:

When you were born you cried
And the world rejoiced.
Live your life so that when you die
The world cries and you rejoice.

His voice loops as it turns into a round. As powerful a thematic scene change as I’ve ever seen. We transition to the Leixslip house.

The flexible and striking set design is by Andrew Clancy and Grace O’Hara; Welsh did the sound design. Stephen Dodd’s lighting very much adds to the sense of dreaminess.

The women are holding garbage bags like balloons. Outlines are drawn on walls. They disappear and come back in Hazmat suits. Jarring electronic music.

Then one of the Hazmatted-suit wearers turns on a radio on the table. Willie Nelson’s “Home Is Where You’re Happy,” and the jarring music stops. The forensic team, one on each side of the table, sway to the song almost imperceptibly, as if they can’t help it, as if they are in a trance. As if they are underwater flowers.

Every time I’m tempted to just dismiss this production, I keep coming back to this image. It’s so deft, skillful, and somehow so touching.

While they sway The Lip Reader knocks and eventually barges in, crawling through a garbage bag against the wall.

Eventually the Hazmatted ones stop swaying, take off their suits, and become the women. But don’t expect a narrative here: they have bits of dialogue, silent scenes, they say a few things to the Lip Reader. Did they starve themselves because they were being evicted? Was it religion? At one point one of the nieces seems to have wanted to stop. But they didn’t. There’s a little deconstruction, too; the women singing a be-bop song (for no clear reason); The Lip Reader narrating a bit. But unlike the best deconstruction, these techniques don’t take us deeper into the piece, or shed light on the event at its center.

The final scene consists of a long film of a close-up of a mouth, in the vein of Beckett’s “Not I,” telling a story from childhood. It’s clearly implied that the father was molesting the woman speaking. I thought this was cheesy until I googled afterwards and yes, apparently the women thought of the father as a monster.

Ben Kidd and Moukarzel  create powerful, unforgettable stage images. At one point in the play the women turn the table

sideways against the wall. One of them stands, and the others sit sideways, as if the wall has become the floor. It’s breathtaking. And there is that gentle sway.

©Ian Douglas

©Ian Douglas

Joanna Banks as Frances, Ginz Moxley as Catherine, Caitriona Ni Mhurchu as Bridg-Ruth, and Liv O’Donoghue as Joesphine, convincingly show us women who are connected by blood, passionate, troubled, deep. They’re striving for something. But at the end of the play, we still have no idea what.

Ultimately, there is a lot more to chew on here than the undergraduate observation that language can empty itself of meaning.

In that long video, one line stands out: “Death is not an event but a process. It cannot be shared, only witnessed.” More of this please.  And more to witness. “Lippy” tells us, rather than shows us, what it.

But then there’s that country song and the swaying Hazmat suits. It’s  enough to make me want to see more.

 

Through Sunday, Nov 2.
Saturday| 8 pm
Sunday |
2 pm and 7 pm

At Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002

Visit Irish Arts Center for tickets.

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Copyright 2014 New York Irish Arts