Thursday, June 20, 2013

Landmark Productions, 'Howie the Rookie': In Search of Respect

Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Jun 13-Jul 6

My review of Landmark Productions' Howie the Rookie by Mark O'Rowe coming up just as soon as I wear the white ski pants ...

Playwright Mark O'Rowe is one screwed up visionary. His 2003 screenplay Intermission introduced the sadistic concept of drinking tea mixed with brown sauce (!), and his 1999 multi-award winning play Howie the Rookie harbors a freak fascination with the contagious skin infection: scabies. O'Rowe not only uses the ailment to open the play with a character setting fire to his scabies-infested mattress (forming one of the funniest openings to an Irish play ever) but goes on to use it as a key plot device as Howie Lee and his pals Olly and Peaches search Dublin city to track down the source of the infection itself: the handsome Rookie Lee.

On paper, Howie reads funny but borderline crass. Performed live by the razor sharp Tom Vaughn-Lawlor, O'Rowe's script turns into a medley of urban sounds and tempos. It's clear that the playwright is trying to unlock something new here, and his biggest alteration is to reduce what are conventionally two performance roles to one, with Vaughan-Lawlor playing both the Howie and the Rookie.

The Howie is a go-getter, unafraid to knock some heads together. The Rookie's got looks. Where the girls, or "dollies", come easy to him, Howie only has the really (really) unadorned Avalanche to take hold of his, eh, heart. Shirking off his parents' request to babysit his younger brother Mouse (though eliciting an unorthodox babysitter along the way), Howie goes out in search of respect. He lands himself a blonde in a bar, as well as the target Rookie. Things look to be going his way until the dreaded hum of Philip Stewart's sound design fills the auditorium at the close of the first act and a revelation turns this dark comedy into a searing tragedy.

Vaughan-Lawlor deals out O'Rowe's script with the strategy of a boxer. A funny line delivers with a quick cheeky jab here and there, then a smutty description catches us off guard with a left hook, and, ultimately, the uppercut itself: the moments where the actor conveys the two boys' extraordinary pain and suffering. He expertly grabs hold of O'Rowe's rhyme and rhythm and wrings it of its purest element: the voices of the street, the speed of the buses, the drivers thirst for their tea - the parts that make the swagger of a city that shows too little mercy.

Surprisingly, when Vaughan-Lawlor transitions from Howie to Rookie there is only the slightest modulation in his delivery, confirming what we may have suspected since the announcement was made to double-cast: that this production is concerned more with bringing the two roles closer together rather than distinguishing them as two seperate individuals. I always felt that O'Rowe was writing a morality play in showing both sides of a confrontation where one man is the pursuer of violence and the other is the unwilling recipient. Despite Howie's act being over it feels like he's still with us due to the resemblance in Vaughan-Lawlor's barely modified performance, thus presenting more directly the character's redeeming qualities in the second act. Rookie's fate is tied to Howie's search for redemption, and the kind man he describes seems to simultaneously stand and fight before us, taller than before.

At first glance, Howie the Rookie can appear apathetic but this is quickly undone. Similarly, Anne Clarke and her Landmark Productions do not settle for the superficial. Its prolific casting banks on talent rather than celebrity (as already proven with Misterman), and the ringer this time around knocks out a performance so momentous as to award new respect and glory to the fearless Howie Lee.

What did everybody else think?

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