Talk about a repetition compulsion: For the first half of “The Walworth Farce,” New Century Theatre’s latest adventure, a father and his two grown sons run through the lines of the play they reenact day after day – an absurd, antic ritual involving a mock procession with a cardboard coffin, constant prop swaps, dizzying identity changes and a hidden “fortune” of shredded Monopoly money.
In the confines of their squalid South London council flat, Dinny (Peter Crook) is the paterfamilias and dictatorial writer-director of the script he and his sons Sean (New Century Theatre artistic director Darragh Kennan) and Blake (Peter Dylan O'Connor) perform day after day. Dinny keeps his boys’ eyes on the prize, egging them on to compete for a chalice-like trophy that will go to that day’s “best actor.” But snafus inevitably occur, and the ritual has to be reorganized.
Dinny’s play is the thing that’s supposed to keep them all safe. It recounts the story, fable repeated until it’s taken as fact, of how this insular family unit was forced to abandon their idyllic home back in Cork. We also learn how Mother was killed in a bizarre accident involving a dead horse. They’ve been living as exiles ever since, surrounded by “savage” Londoners and holed up on the top floor of a grimy, stairless high-rise.
“What are we without our stories?” wonders Dinny by way of justifying the outrageous fiction he’s used to paint over what actually happened – and the real world kept at bay by a half-dozen deadbolts on the flat’s front door.
New Century’s choice of this challenging work by Irish playwright Enda Walsh for its fall production is characteristic of the ensemble’s uncompromising theatrical values. The group is dedicated to risk-taking plays “that ask more questions than they answer.”
Though Walsh is one of today’s highest-profile Irish writers, his plays have rarely been staged in Seattle. (Last year saw a production of his breakthrough play “Disco Pigs” by Sound Theatre.) Walsh wrote the screenplay for the biopic “Hunger” (a haunting account of Bobby Sands’ final days) and won a Tony for his book for the musical “Once.” “The Walworth Farce” was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and has toured around the world. But there’s no commercial pandering in Walsh’s provocative concoction of hilarity and horror.
Liberally helping himself to a theatrical toolbox of farcical routines (of decidedly non-Irish provenance), warped family drama (think Eugene O’Neill on crystal meth), Irish yarn-spinning, the play-within-a-play and the cliché of the Unexpected Stranger, Walsh designs an experience that’s stunningly original.
“The Walworth Farce” poses extraordinary challenges not just for the audience but for the performers and the entire design team. Structurally, Walsh’s play unfolds as a slow burn that leaves you mostly perplexed for the first half. That is until an outsider – Haley, who works the register at the nearby Tesco — appears at the door with the groceries Sean absent-mindedly left behind.
From that point on — with an intermission Walsh deliberately writes in as an essential structural feature — the zany “play-acting” of the first part suddenly starts making sense. It’s like the tumblers of a lock clicking into place — but a different, horrifying kind of sense is what’s being made. The brilliance of Walsh’s writing is that this lightning bolt of clarity only amps up the tension to a nearly unbearable level. Just as your impulse to laugh begins to seem criminal, Walsh heightens the absurdity.
Crook conveys the blend of charm, paranoia and brutality that makes Dinny so dangerously persuasive — no matter how over-the-top bonkers his behavior is. He delivers Walsh’s virtuoso verbal antics with such fluent ease it’s hard to decipher where Dinny himself draws the line between performance and “normal” life.
As Sean, Kennan reveals his conflicted motivations between allegiance, protection and rebellion. His brief encounters with the outside world during errands to Tesco have opened a window, but Kennan’s portrayal adds depth to his confusion. It’s the job of the other son, the mentally stunted Blake, to play the multiple roles of the women in Dinny’s story, and O'Connor juggles personas like a guest performance by Sybil for the Rude Mechanicals in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
With Allison Strickland’s gripping performance as the outgoing and cheerful Tesco clerk Hayley, an entirely new tone enters the play. She represents the audience itself – and the collision of naturalism with the stylized theatrics-as-therapy trio she happens upon. Suddenly father and sons have to improvise in a way they’re not used to, no matter how insistently they try to fit Hayley into their patterns.
New Century Theatre’s dependably high level of acting gets an extra boost in this production, which is a collaboration with John Kazanjian. Kazanjian, a legendary figure in avant-garde Seattle theater, directs a tight-knit ensemble that’s dazzling in the hyper-kinetic physical acting needed to pull off this play. He gets the undertow and cross-currents of black humor — as you’d expect from an expert at staging Samuel Beckett — without diluting the devastating impact of “Walworth”’s denouement.
Kazanjian has also made New City’s theater on Capitol Hill available for the production. The claustrophobic space — only 40-something seats, so reservations are essential — brings with it a new challenge not found in Walsh’s script, which envisions a more traditional proscenium layout. But Nina Moser’s set design effectively reconfigures the space into a vertically oriented lane with that formidable door looming far upstage. The flat’s intricate clutter reeks of gothic urban squalor.
Resounding with Dinny’s tapes of Irish crooners — the soundtrack for his manufactured memories — it’s the visual emblem of the trap in which they’re collectively ensnared. But the truth can’t set them free.
Even after the violent final scene has played out, we see Sean starting to invent a new legend — the show, after all, has to go on.
If you go: New Century Theatre’s production of "The Walworth Farce" by Enda Walsh runs through October 27 at New City Theatre on Capitol Hill, 1404 18th Avenue, Seattle. Tickets: $20-30, available online.