Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gúna Nua and Civic Theatre, ‘The Goddess of Liberty’: Madame O Diva

Project Arts Centre Cube, Dublin
Jan 31-Feb 18

My review of The Goddess of Liberty by Karen Ardiff coming up just as soon as I talk to a middling actor man from America ...

With recent collaborations such as Owen O’Neill’s vengeful Absolution, Anthony Brophy’s calculating Chicane, and Elaine Murphy’s award-stealing Little Gem, Gúna Nua has become a dependable company insofar as the continued output of clever new writing in Irish theatre is concerned. Performer/novelist Karen Ardiff sets her new play, The Goddess of Liberty, on the edge of the world and spans the journey of two Irish women from their meeting on a famine ship bound for New York to their present day lives in gold-rush Alaska. The challenges facing director Paul Meade involve drawing more than just gold from the stone.

Aboard the famine ship, aside from stealing her exquisite pastry, it was the thieving woman’s odour that annoyed Frankie Harmon – stage diva/centre of the universe – which, she says, all the perfumes of the Arab world could not supress. When she then discovered the woman’s suburb talent for sewing lace, she struck up an alliance, one which continued decades later until the scene before us, where she (May) tends to Frankie in their cabin home, left mute and disabled after a stroke. When May’s daughter T-Belle returns with news that the gold has dried up, spelling doom for the town’s trade, May knows exactly what symbol will rally and raise the community’s spirits: the recreation of Frankie’s Goddess of Liberty act. One could brand her optimism for her friend’s recovery either as denial or hope but either way they're both intrinsic.  

Ardiff wisely demonstrates rather than have us assume the virtuosity of her jaunty celebrity. The fragmentation of expression through a bodily infliction is not exactly a novel idea (Tom Kilroy’s Double Cross and Brian Friel’s Translations quickly come to mind, while a stroke victim is seen as recent as Michael West’s Freefall in 2009) but it does allow poetics to shift, and on this occasion it gives Geraldine Plunkett licence to own the stage with all her swagger and charm. Ardiff uses the conceit of Hermione and her restoration from statue to human in Shakespeare’s The Winter's Tale – the role May most fondly recalls her friend performing – as a metaphor throughout for Frankie’s own possible revival(*).

(*) Anyone willing to bet that Ardiff played Hermione herself at some point?

Despite the writer’s sensuous flare for textures, scents and songs, and the sharp-edged dialogue of her strong and sometimes lacerating characters, The Goddess of Liberty can’t help but stilt more than stir. The economic depravity of the offstage world, which further fuels the need for Frankie’s recovery, doesn’t receive enough representation for us to care, rendering most of the exposition about the town and its figures inconsequential. There is confusion as to whether Emma Colohan’s T-Belle is to undergo redemption or remain antagonistic, leaving her sorely unsympathetic throughout. If it’s the latter, Megan Riordan already fills these shoes as tactless harlot Nelly, underscoring the darker side of Ardiff’s wit with a delivery and timing more sharp than T-Belle’s treasured knife. This leaves Máire Ní Ghráinne’s dutiful May and her relationship with Frankie as our last anchor to any emotional investment in the content here. Her loyalty imbues the play with needed affection but her final comments to Frankie seem so left of field, partly because Ní Ghráinne treats the revelation without much dramatic emphasis. Meade’s production engages when it jolts out of its naturalist mode (with Maree Kearn’s set cleverly doubling as a ship-deck) and brings Plunkett to life, but otherwise he hasn’t emphasised these crises or characterisations in a way which makes them revelatory.

Ardiff’s Irish Times Theatre Awards-nominated performance in Rough Magic’s Peer Gynt turned the production around from transcendental fancy towards a realism and emotion more appreciated than spectacle. She evidently grasps the complexities of theatrical realism and puts it to practice in her play. Unfortunately, her ‘theatrical moment’, plotted to be equally as miraculous as when the music strikes and awakens Hermione, never finds its note in this production.

What did everybody else think?

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