by Byron Woods
If you want to explore some of the outer limits of theatrical discourse this evening, you now have two choices, not one.
For as chance—and producers’ schedules—would have it, less than half a mile away from IN THE HEIGHTS’ amazing musical fusion of slam poetry, rap and meringue-edged songs at DPAC (which earned our latest 5-star review earlier this week), Dublin's Abbey Theatre pursues a different form of verbal gymnastics in a production of Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe’s latest work, TERMINUS, at the Carolina Theatre.
Given the edgy spoken-word jazz already intrinsic to O’Rowe’s work (which the region savored in a Delta Boys’ production of HOWIE THE ROOKIE in March 2008), the literary dare he undertook here is at least understandable: to write a contemporary full-length play, using rhyme, from first to last. The few indulgences allowed by technique—since rhymes, after all, can be broken, perfect, internal, off-center or slant—are likely the only factors permitting any other outcome here besides kitsch.
With a gripping tale, grippingly told by this trio of actors, TERMINUS is not a disaster by any means. But as much as I’d like to report that O’Rowe bests his self-set challenge, when literary filigree upstages the drama as often as it happens in TERMINUS, the work can't be called the artist's best.
Was this conclusion forgone? Perhaps. With unfettered—and unforced—access to all the tools of spoken word and music, the narratives in O'Rowe's earlier works seem significantly freer and less self-conscious. Here, both playwright and audience become sensitized early to the device he has tasked himself to keep in constant use.
Maybe two-thirds of the time, the rhymes flow inconspicuously enough through the discourse. But then come those instances when, apparently feeling cornered, O’Rowe resorts to the verbal head-fake: forcing his characters to avoid the natural occurrence of rhyme while stretching to unexpected and off-rhythm tags instead.
As a one-off, it’s an effective enough change of pace. But when overused, this and other, similar devices draw attention away from the dramatic moment to their own presence instead. (Those who would follow this path, take note: Disbelief is no longer suspended whenever we’re saying, “How clever.”) Too frequently, O’Rowe’s verbal lacework demands center stage. When it does, the drama, for the moment, is broken.
It’s an unfortunate parallel for a production whose dramatic structure (and set design by Jon Bausor) emphasize the smashing of trust, the shattering of lives, the fragmentation of society, and the spiritual ruin accompanying these.
Three of O’Rowe’s characters are in search of some form of redemption. Actor Olwen Fouéré’s gritty character, known only as “A,” is going through the motions as a social work cynic—until she hears the voice of a former student on a domestic violence and suicide hotline. As "A’s" estranged daughter, actor Catherine Walker’s “B” seeks an end to her legacy of loneliness and mistrust—and ultimately finds it, if from the most unlikely of sources. But Declan Conlon proves a not-so-tricky trickster figure as “C,” a serial killer who's polite, unassuming and even self-effacing—well, for the most part, at any rate.
Still, all of these actors captivate us at points with their skill at a story. Walker’s greatest acting achievement here is likely in making a figure both graphic and grotesque the entirely believable recipient of her character’s love. Conlon’s merrily unrepentant “C” takes us all on an errant joyride—of sorts—as he bolts in full flight from the law, while Fouéré’s account of a hellified bar fight is undeniably riveting as well.
When we’re truly with their characters, all of whom speak directly to us throughout the play, O’Rowe’s work is compelling—even if some of the plot twists take us well into the fantastic (with no less than demons and angels in supporting roles). It’s also well worth noting that, in O’Rowe’s hands, one character’s descent into the waters of Lethe—and journey beyond that, to what awaits on the other side—is, if anything, even more touching than Sarah Ruhl’s vision which we experienced in last season’s EURYDICE. That’s saying something.
Although they're all in some way shattered, almost all of O’Rowe’s characters continue—humbly, grudgingly or gleefully. But since they do, what or where that fateful endpoint suggested in the title exactly is remains one of several riddles left us at this production’s terminus.
The arc of O'Rowe's moral universe isn't merely long: It's a vertiginous gauntlet of thrill-ride twists, rolls and dives that thoroughly disorients us before bending toward justice. Tellingly though, TERMINUS ultimately impresses us most when its literary gimmicks impress us least.