Never in my life have I walked out of a theater speechless and utterly breathless, but that is exactly what happened after seeing Misterman last night at St. Ann's Warehouse. Starring (an understatement) Cillian Murphy and written and directed by Enda Walsh, this 80 minute non-stop cyclone of words, sounds and smells paralyzed me. The lights came down on the final scene and the audience was frozen. I couldn't put my hands together to clap. It no longer felt like theater. It was too intense and alive for polite applause or the usual New York standing O. This was an experience that required more than that and yet I could not move.
Frankly I cannot discuss this play without spoilers and I need to talk about this so stop reading if you don't want to know. Stop now. Have you stopped. Ok.
The show is centered around Thomas (Murphy), a religiously fervent but dutiful son off to get biscuits for his Mammy. He narrates his day walking around his town of Innishfree. Each local he encounters (also performed by Murphy) reminds Thomas of the litany of sins and sinners that surround him and he writes down their transgressions in his little notepad of Catholic judgment (my words, not his).
Thomas carries a tape recorder with him everywhere he goes. The production then builds a soundscape from these recordings of voices and atmospheric sounds which escalates into total sensory overload. My view is that what we are experiencing all along is the mental landscape of Thomas. As he becomes overwhelmed by his own actions and experiences, so does the soundscape. Thomas is pushed to the brink and his religious fervor, mental illness, and violent tendencies all come to a troubling and explosive conclusion. It reminded me of Clean, Shaven
which is an incredibly intense film about schizophrenia. It was so
intense I had to turn it off and finish watching it another day. But really getting into the mind of another person and one suffering some sort of mental breakdown is a feat in any medium. Watching it unfold on stage, from the front row no less, was frightening and chilling.
Because the journey into Thomas's mind is a puzzling and twisted journey I spent most of the show not quite sure where it was going but happily
along for the ride. Murphy's performance is frequently amusing and always riveting even
if the narrative trajectory is opaque. This lack of narrative clarity seems to be
intentional and it allows the audience to really be startled by the
final scenes. There was so much energy and concentration to Murphy's
performance that it was hard for me to take my eyes off of him.
It was not as if Murphy was acting a variety of roles. It was as if he was physically possessed by a variety of characters that just burst forth from his body. Each had their own accent and mannerisms. It was truly unlike anything I have ever seen before on stage.
After leaving the theater I felt emotionally battered in a good way (if one can ever say that). The play slowly built the intensity. It was happening without me noticing. The power and meaning of the show seeped in quietly and unexpectedly for the final reveal to be both stunning but completely within the realm of "reality" for the play.
Misterman was a marriage of an incredibly talented actor with an amazing writer/director. Theatrical heaven even if it felt a bit like hell.