The Walworth Farce
The Druid Theatre Company
St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn
THE Walworth Farce, Enda Walsh's new play at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn presented by Ireland's Druid Theatre Company, is a rollercoaster ride of mayhem, murder and cross-dressing Irish style, so it's no surprise that it's often quite a lot of fun. But beneath its completely chaotic surface it's also a serious minded piece of theater, indeed so much so that at times there's a real tension between the play and its purpose.
Set in a squalid apartment in South London, where Dinny lives with his 25-year-old sons Blake and Sean, the action begins as the three men get ready to perform a play that, we're eventually informed, they have been repeating for nearly two decades. It's a farcical play written, directed by and starring Dinny in which he brazenly rationalizes the violent crimes that drove him from Cork to the English capital.
In this intentionally preposterous story, Dinny is a Cork brain surgeon who ends up in a mortal conflict with his older brother about their mother's will. Though we never quite get to the bottom of what really happened - and it doesn't really matter - we eventually discover the truth beneath all the theatrics. Dinny was a laborer who once turned violent on his family members and then fled the country in fear for his own life.
Of course neither Blake nor Sean are responsible for their father's sins, but they have nonetheless inherited them, and that's one of the author's main points. In Ireland, the author reminds us, you are handed a narrative at birth - and you can let it take over your life, or you can try to crawl out from under its burden. Either way, at some point, you will have to tackle it head on.
In a recent interview with the Irish Voice Walsh said, "The Irish don't really write farce, so I had to learn the constructs of it. But I thought it was interesting to explore. And Druid wanted me to write for them. I wanted to write a Druid type play but in the rhythm of a farce."
Walsh has certainly succeeded. The multiple costume changes, the pratfalls, the mistaken identities and the male and female roles propel most of the first act, as do the high wire antics of the cast, led expertly by director Mikel Murfi.
But it's with the arrival of Hayley at the end of the first act - the only female role in the play - that the show really takes flight. An emissary from the real world, the very place the three men are hiding from, she instantly changes the dynamic between the others and brings all of the play's themes into focus.
In the role, Mercy Ojelade gives a funny and heart-rending performance as an innocent young black girl with an unsuspecting crush on Sean. But Dinny also recognizes her as a threat to his crumbling authority, and so the scene is set for tragedy.
It's interesting to watch Walsh's broadly written characters negotiate the demands of comedy and the - at times - thoroughly tragic subject matter of the play. As we laugh at their clownish antics the insane levels of violence and anger they descend to also unnerve us. In the midst of this maelstrom stands Haley, a mute witness who's compelled to become a participant against her will.
There's no question that the play explores highly provocative subject matter. In act two, for example, Dinny tries to induct Hayley into his story and his world by painting her face white.
The message is clear - Dinny is a hammer who sees everyone else as a nail. He takes away other people's words and their histories, and he makes the face fit the story even at knifepoint.
But outside the world of the play, this face painting moment is so symbolically potent (you'll carry it home) that it elicited gasps from the audience on opening night.
It's hard to contain such a dramatic gesture, or to anchor its interpretations, and so when Sean also puts on black face at the end of the play the audience's discomfort becomes acute.
The Walworth Farce resides in an odd no mans land half way between farce and tragedy. By the end of the play it's hard to tell where one starts and the other ends.
The Walworth Farce plays at the St. Ann's Warehouse until May 4. For tickets call 718-254-8779.