The Rogue Theatre
The sound of one hand clapping at 'New Electric Ballroom'
Rogue's latest production is a Mobius Strip of a play that loops back upon itself
The Rogue Theatre has a tradition of post-show discussions between cast, director and audience after each performance. A central question is, “What was this play about?”
After opening night of “The New Electric Ballroom,” a Mobius Strip of a play that loops back upon itself, the cast themselves admitted that they were still trying to figure it all out, and, in any case, would likely come to different conclusions by the end of the run.
That’s not surprising in a play with long, intense monologues that seem highly personal, until we hear the same riffs loop back, repeated with variations. Then we realize the Twilight Zone nature of this world, where psyches are stuck in a moment, while time moves relentlessly forward. The needle in the groove, endlessly repeating, has worn itself into a trench of distortion.
“The New Electric Ballroom” is a 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival prize winner by Enda Walsh, an acclaimed new Irish playwright. The narrative is presented in a fragmented way that deliberately undermines its logic and coherence. The result is a play firmly in the Theatre of the Absurd tradition with Godot overtones.
The story focuses on three socially isolated sisters in a remote Irish fishing village. The elder two, Clara and Breda (Cynthia Meier and Cynthia Jeffery) remain fixated on a dance concert of their youth where they each almost got laid by the big out-of-town star. In the end, however, he chose to mate with a Doris Day-ish blonde bimbo.
Fetishistic rituals of memory are enacted by the two. Their audience (and mediator) is little sister Ada (Laura Lippman), herself now middle-aged. She is also a co-conspirator in these re-enactments, operating a tape player that provides a soundtrack for each of their tales. Ada is the only one to venture out, bicycling to her office job at the fish cannery where she “turns fish into numbers.” Even that small journey is fraught with danger as Ada embraces her family’s weirdness through an inappropriate response to the death of a neighbor’s pet dog.
The lone outside light that penetrates this dark little corner of the universe is Patsy (Joe McGrath), a lowly fishmonger who makes home deliveries.
The rituals include symbolic clothing and the sisters have made a shrine of the pop star’s ultramarine blue sharkskin suit. In a scene with Christ-like references, they strip and wash Patsy, then dress him like a doll in the suit as an offering to Ada. It all comes crashing down with the revelation that his mother happened to be a Doris Day-ish blonde, father unknown.
Meier, Jeffery and Lippman all give committed, nuanced performances to their tightly wound lunatic characters. However, McGrath’s performance rises even higher as the lonely and frustrated Patsy, more committed to escape from this seaside prison than the sisters who embrace their pathetic past/future.
The pre-show music segment, another Rogue tradition, helps ease the audience into this strange, claustrophobic world. Music director Dawn C. Sellars taps a historical UK star of the era, Billy Fury, who is largely unknown in America. His music, typical of early 60s British, like his contemporary Billy J. Kramer, has a hint of Roy Orbison and was the model for the earliest Beatles hits. The sound is familiar, but unanchored in actual experience, making it feel more like a dream, or rather, a false memory of a high school dance you never attended. A guitar/bass/drums trio, 12 Measures of Interest, plays Billy Fury songs with heavy reverb from behind a curtain, creating a powerful anonymous ambiance to set up the play.
The Rogue Theatre revels in its intellectually challenging productions, including enlightening presentations of Beckett and other Absurdists. “The New Electric Ballroom,” while great fun to watch, seems to lack great depth; its dark existentialism diluted by the colorful pathological OCD behaviors collectively practiced by the sisters. Are they crazy or is life crazy? Walsh is content to foment turmoil rather than promulgate conclusions. That he does so with the lush love of language that is the heritage of Irish playwrights helps mask and enshroud the sad, delusional characters of the play. This make the dizzying narrative more tolerable while contemplating the zen koan of, “What is this play about?”