Posted by: strugglesome | November 9, 2010

Catching the Worm: Inis Nua’s The Early Bird

I am no stranger to awkward moments. I mean, I’ve been the only non-Asian on a 13 hour train ride from Shanghai to Beijing and had to figure out a way to ask about a bathroom. I know awkward. So you can believe that I speak only the truth when I tell you that watching Inis Nua Theatre’s fall production of Leo Butler’s The Early Bird was phenomenally awkward. And you should know that I mean that in the best possible sense. Because a play about a grieving couple struggling to come to terms with their only daughter’s disappearance  should, in fact, be awkward, in the way that true intimacy is painfully awkward to witness, much less observe for a full hour. And achieving that sense of intimacy that both intrigues and discomforts the audience is one of this production’s triumphs.

As the audience files into the theater and selects their seats, they observe a large white rectangular cube, which will become the playing space (designed by Meghan Jones) once the show starts.  However, before the show begins the audience has time to realize the white sheets are semi-transparent, and that Debbie and Jack (Kittson O’Neill and Jared Delaney) are moving behind the curtains, casting shadow images on the white expanse like negatives in a dark room, reminding one of Nichole Canuso Dance Company’s Live Arts offering, Takes. The comparison stops as the show starts, when in a gesture of barely-contained violence O’Neill and Delaney rip down the white curtain and start to talk. And thus begins a tautly tightly wound 60 minutes of theater which turns from darkly funny to brutally painful on the edge of a knife. Dissonant and troubling twangs of music (sound design and original music by Daniel Perelstein with cello and additional voice by Annie Fredrickson)  haunt the space and beautifully torment the nerves of actors and audience alike. Smoothly paced and elegantly staged by director Tom Reing, O’Neill and Delaney (who match each other in talent and raw layered depths) swirl and twist around each other like a pair of fighting cats, each one accusing, jabbing, comforting and destroying the other in a desperate effort to make some sense out of the loss of their daughter, Kimberly.

Of course, it takes a little bit of time before the audience is actually aware of what is happening, and it takes the entire play for us to understand the conflicts and land mines living underneath the surface of this relationship. Written like a Pinter play with a dash of Edward Albee thrown in (for laughs?), the narrative is nowhere in the neighborhood of linear. Instead it moves like a deadly game of shoots and ladders, conversations circling each other, games and absent roles taken up and discarded like a courtesan’s nightgown. Re-occurring lines run wild through the dialog, recriminations and fierce accusations of blame face up against reassurances and justifications, and imagined monsters grow real as they are described by Debbie and Jack, false demons who have somehow taken away their very real child.

While ostensibly set in England, and peppered with pop-culture references rendered meaningless by their journey across the pound, the truth of the matter is that this play could be set anywhere. As Jack says, “the event itself is not unusual”, and of course, it’s really not, children disappear all the time, now, don’t they? But the fact that the event is so very commonplace is precisely what makes it so troubling, so devastating, and so difficult to overcome. Caught in their cycles of remorse and pain, Jack and Debbie lash out, self-flagellate and play games, ending right where they began, getting nowhere, moving not a step in any real direction. It’s painful to watch, it’s awkward, it’s difficult, but it’s also blindingly well done by Inis Nua, and what’s more, it’s not a minute too long. Devastation and awkwardness in an hour? What’s not to love!

Inis Nua Theatre has completed their run of The Early Bird, but you should watch out for their upcoming productions, the next of which is Pump Girl, this coming winter. If it’s anything like The Early Bird, you should catch it before it’s too late.

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