Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lippy: Unspoken and Unknown

I am a sucker for deconstruction and Lippy by Irish theater company Dead Centre does deconstruction very well.  Avoiding obvious entry points to a story about a suicide pact they instead engage in a visual and aural storytelling that plays with form and by doing so cracks open the story to take us to new and exciting places. The overall impact is incredibly powerful.  I first saw the work in Edinburgh (it made my Top 10) and was so glad to have another chance to see it in New York.

The piece can be divided into three parts.  First there is a mock talkback for a show we have not seen but lip reading is discussed and demonstrated.  A fatuous moderator played with panache by co-creator Bush Moukarzel interviews an actor.  The actor (Daniel Reardon) tells a story of a police case he was involved in where he read the lips of women on CCTV footage who later entered into a suicide pact. Three sisters and an aunt starved themselves to death (Joanna Banks, Gina Moxley, Catriona Ni Mhurchu, Liv O'Donoghue).  Gruesome and inexplicable in part 2 the actor inserts himself into the house where the women died and time spins backward and forward as we sees them ready themselves to die while the lip reader struggles to understand. In part 3 playwright Mark O'Halloran has crafted a monologue spoken by one of the sisters. Projected in a close up shot of only her mouth shape and context drift away and we are left staring into her mouth--grotesque and distorted.

Despite the surface incongruity of the three parts (and frankly a good deal of humor in part one) they are held together by a powerful soundscape by Adam Welsh, giving us a world where things are not what they seem. People may appear to be speaking but then their voices are distorted. Or it may appear live and then suddenly it is a recording. Looping, distortion, and feedback sculpt the landscape of the play and give it an unexpected emotional depth.

Like the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation we come to understand that we can never quite know everything, even when things are recorded.  No matter how hard we try or lean in and listen, much will be left incomplete.  By illustrating and imagining but not explaining Dead Centre gives these women their privacy whilst still exploring their story.  Relying on movement, sound, and not words, we too can only grapple with potential ideas and not answers.  By focusing on the lip reader and the limits of his ability to interpret the scenes nothing is gospel. It's speculation. He is thwarted at every turn by the women: straining to hear or interference drowning out their words. What the truth is may not be known.

Clarity or answers are never promised. But this company achieves creative cohesion thanks to smart direction (by Ben Kidd and Moukarzel), the unifying themes, the dynamic sound work, and the strong visual tableaux. Maybe the mouth monologue (Beckett homage noted) goes on a bit too long (sometimes so does Beckett) but the stunning and haunting visuals of part 2 may be some of the most inventive and thoughtful stage images I've ever seen and when the lights go up on part 2 (even knowing what was coming) I was filled with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and horror.  It's a punch to the gut (and perhaps to the eardrums) but not easily forgotten. 

Dead Centre (made up of Kidd, Moukarzel, Welsh) is a young company and I look forward to what they come up with next.

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