Friday, September 13, 2013

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle: Remembrances

Karen Sheridan and Erica Murray in THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE, a 15th Oak production.  Photo by Lucy Nuzum

I was eager to check-out 15th Oak's award-winning show The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle which was described as venturing "into Daniel Kitson territory."  Obviously, you can't sell a show as Daniel Kitson-esque and not expect me to show up. 

I can see where the comparison comes from.  Focused on the unexamined lives of ordinary people, with a tinge of the melancholy, Eric Argyle is a Kitson fledgling.  It looks like its shambolic, storyteller Dad (I assume its Mum is Irish) and shares many qualities with him, but it's in it's earliest of stages of growth.*  Written by Ross Dungan and directed by Dan Herd, Eric Argyle is winsome at times and noble in its storytelling efforts.  It is a promising introduction of the 15th Oak theatre company to New York audiences. 

Eric Argyle (David McEntegart), standing around in his pajamas, finds himself before a questioning audience.  Led by a strange moderator (Katie Lyons) an unexplained group recreates key scenes in his life.  Eric's not quite sure what is happening but he's pretty sure he's dead. We meet his abusive uncle Mr. Aldershot (Davey Kelleher), his best friend Craig (Manus Halligan), and his best friend's girl Gillian (Siobhán Cullen). We see how he meets the man who becomes his boss, Mr. Downey (again Manus Halligan).

At the same time Eric is bearing witness to a twisted version of "This is Your Life," Jessica Bolger (Karen Sheridan) is up late with her crying nephew and answers the door only to come across a postman with 5307 letters addressed to her house. Eventually these disparate tales will connect,
and one person's adventure will have meaning in someone else's life. But until these strands intersect again, we see Eric's small life unfold before us and the people who meant the most to him. We see the choices he made, his failures, and uncomfortably so does he. Reliving what are some of the most difficult of his life, he starts to fight against the authority in this afterlife.

As with any story that looks backward on a life, with perspective,there are pivotal moments you wish did not happen the way they did.  The show delves into this regret, memory, and loss and successfully
focuses on your heart strings.

It reminded me most of Pig Pen Theatre Company's The Old Man and The Moon which also involved a young, developing theater company which triples as storytellers, actors, and musicians and a tone that is quiet whimsy.  Here, the company reads to us from the story of Eric Argyle, doubles up on characters, acts out scenes, and plays several instruments as underscoring. Unlike Pig Pen which went a lot further with an inventive visual design involving shadow puppets, Eric Argyle is more modest in its approach.  The design aesthetic gently suggests the afterlife is like a jumbled antique shop--mismatched lamps, chairs, and sentimental objects.

Standouts among the performers were James Murphy as young Eric who grows from stuttering boy to creative and yet stifled man.  Erica Murray managed to play the young child, Imelda, with conviction and authenticity. Karen Sheridan, as the disgruntled Jessica, makes the most of her smaller role.

Erica Murray in THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE, a 15th Oak production. Photo by Lucy Nuzum
There's no question there are some lovely and heartbreaking moments in this show--these are mostly the scenes where Eric's life is recreated and he is forced, Ghost of Christmas Past style, to look on. But the storytelling device, where the cast passes the book around and reads us the story, does not have as much magic or power as it should for the mysterious world being created here.  It takes up a good portion of the show and it somehow remains didactic narration and not more vivid storytelling. The people doing the reading are not characters.  There is no struggle to read out the harder bits and no guidance or inflection to shape it otherwise.  Dan Herd's direction keeps the shifts in time clear but I wish the company had found a way to make the reading of the story as moving as the story being told.

*As a connoisseur of Kitson, I will assume the naming of a character as Hanratty is an homage to the Legend of Denby Dale as he tosses out that name from time to time in his casual asides and it is
a funny name.

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