Posted by: strugglesome | January 17, 2011

A Full Tank: Inis Nua’s Pumpgirl

Let me begin by naming the entirely petty and unsophisticated underpinning of Philadelphia’s Irish Theater Festival, that is, the Irish accent. As I sat watching Inis Nua Theatre Company’s Pumpgirl this weekend, I was struck by the uncomfortable realization that given how many theaters have joined in this festival celebrating Ireland’s finest,  it is going to be a tremendously long winter/spring of Irish accents. This is not to say that I don’t love the genuine Irish accent with its lilting tones and adorably decapitated articles. But watching someone affect an accent on stage is akin to watching a bar mitzvah, you couldn’t be prouder that they are doing it correctly, but you are finely attuned to every possible error, and you are really hoping they just get through their portion without any problems and leave the bimah so the party can begin and you can get yourself a nice restorative glass of manachevitz. So in light of good taste and sanity, I will not be discussing the respective talents or lack thereof with the accent department for any of these 7 productions (unless they are so god-awful that it begs to be declared). I’m taking it off the table. Don’t expect me to serve it if you are coming over for dinner.

Now that that’s been said, let’s get on with Pumpgirl, a smoothly riveting production of Irish playwright Abbie Spallen’s fascinating if flawed rumination on the vicious dark interior living below the humdrum routines. Told in monologue style with each of the three characters employing direct address, the piece begs comparison’s to the work of fellow Irish playwright Brian Friel, who is completely unrepresented in the Irish Theater Festival, (and yet Martin McDonagh’s work is being produced by three separate companies. This is a funny city). The piece is a series of monologues delivered by each of the three actors in turns as they inhabit different neutral spaces on the stage,as designated by three different chairs (or two chairs and the front seat of a car, as it were).People often refer to this style choice as “storytelling” which strikes me as absurd because all theater is story telling. What I assume is meant by story-telling is that we hear these stories the way you hear a story that is told to you by a friend, it’s long, un-interrupted, and employs direct audience address, looking to the spectators like they are old friends. What is ironic is that the three characters in Pumpgirl , former racetrack star Hammy “No Helmet”  (Harry Smith), his embittered and ignored wife Sinead (Corinna Burns), and the boyish awkward pump girl from the local Petrol Station (Sarah Gliko), would not be people you want within a foot of you in real life, but theatrically they are fascinating. Behind the three actors is a painted flat that serves as both backdrop and commentary, it’s an open road set against flat green farmland, but the painting itself (courtesy of Nick Rye, stage painter and Meghan Jones, set designer) looks waterstained, it’s faded and cracking and of the four lights that illuminate it only three actually work. The set works well with very little to give us an immediate understanding of this world, that we are in a space of memory, living beyond real time and space. It’s a shame that Andrew Cowles’ lighting design is merely adequate and that Aaron Oster’s sound design is rather confused, leaving the set design unsupported.

While the physical production might have its issues, the non-technical aspects of this show are delivered stunningly. The play that director Tom Reing (co-artistic director of Inis Nua) has created houses subtle but every increasing menace and danger, a world in which secrets expand as they are unveiled, leaving the audience both relieved and traumatized as the details of these stories are revealed. The pump girl, an excellent and beautifully nuanced Gliko, is obsessed with the manic emotionally oblivious Hammy (a solid if rather young Smith whose well-built performance has the bad luck to be overshadowed by the tremendous work of Gliko and Burns). As Gliko and Smith describe their mutual relationship and respective lives, Burns’ Sinead seethes with unfulfilled desires and unexpressed resentment towards her husband and her life. The only way to describe Burns is to use the term fantastic, she is extremely powerful in this role. She accesses layers upon layers of subtlety; her performance is beautifully restrained and yet so full of inner life, it breathes vitality into what could be an extremely boring piece of theater (I mean, how interesting is it, really, to watch three people sitting for two hours? And to pay for the privilege!). If this play is anyone’s it’s Burns’ Sinead who takes on the soul-crushing monotony of existence and turns it into art. It just goes to show, excess is easy. Restraint takes work.

Burns also has the benefit of playing the strongest written character, though the title character herself is a close second. Hammy doesn’t feel as complete as the other two roles, and as a result it’s easy to not invest in him as deeply, to see the story as two sympathetic female characters and one male villain, rather than an even plane of flawed but understandable humans. The story as a whole is with fantastic imagery, particularly regarding  smell, a sense that is often completely ignored within the theater, creating descriptions of sense that tantalize and disgust the audience. The nature of the text is such, however, that a lot of things get lost between the monologues. The play hangs together via a series of vague references, spider web passages between each character’s narrative, tenuously holding the complete story together, and when we miss the wisps of connecting information we miss a total understanding of these multiple stories. The pace of the piece also plays a role in this, and towards the end of the play the rhythm of Spallen’s writing diffuses the tension rather than amplifying it, and leaving us with a conclusion that feels drawn out, a balloon losing air rather than a sharp exhale.

But these inconsistencies are not enough to negate the fact that the piece as a whole is a striking piece of theater, and as well as an affecting examination of humanity, in all of its petty pains and epic loves. Inis Nua’s Pumpgirl runs from now until the 23th of January. Tickets are available here.

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