enda walsh

Electric talk talk talk

Enda Walsh's "The New Electric Ballroom" at Third Rail Rep is a tall tale sailing on a torrent of language

Less than a minute into the opening speech of Enda Walsh’s sort-of comedy The New Electric Ballroom at Third Rail Rep I tucked my pen back into my pocket and gave up on the idea of taking notes: no way could I keep up with this thundering waterfall of words. “By their nature people are talkers,” says the spinster Breda, and talk talk talk they do, phrases tumbling and shooting and skipping and flying until your ears give up and run behind your back to hide. The gift of gab, the Irish call it, though at times you wonder – and I suspect Walsh does, too – if the gift isn’t just as much a curse.

The thing is, everybody talks in Electric Ballroom, but nobody talks with. It’s pretty much all speeches, ingrown toenail sorts of rants, in choreographed turns, and it takes a while to figure out who the choreographer is. At first you think it’s the youngest of the three sisters, Ada (Maureen Porter), who seems to be barking out odd orders like a stage manager under duress. You’re pretty sure it’s not Clara (Diana Kondrat), who speaks in elliptical staccato bursts, and is also the announcer of the obvious: “There’s a lull in the conversation,” she chirps at several pregnant pauses in the verbal onslaught, after some barb or another has landed a little too deep. Eventually the caller of the shots appears to be Breda (Lorraine Bahr), the one with the wicked past, at least in these cloistered and ritually embalmed sisters’ minds. But the truth is, not a one of ’em’s actually participated in life enough to have done anything wicked at all, except in their imaginations, which they use to turn on those torrents of language that become a sort of virtual reality, a made-up life that becomes the only life they really have. Sad’s the word for it, and it’s a word that’s short and not so sweet.

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Kondrat (left) with Bahr and Porter: the three sisters. Photo: Owen Carey

Walsh is, of course, Irish (Third Rail also produced his play Penelope a few seasons back, which was directed, as Electric Ballroom is, by Philip Cuomo), and this contemporary play takes place in some isolated Irish village, a place with cliffs and docks and a seafood cannery, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and secrets are both open and long-lasting, sometimes for generations. It’s enough to make any escapee from the boonies to a bigger city shudder at the memory, although if you’ve read any of Tana French’s psychological crime novels set on the narrow-minded streets of Dublin, you might also wonder if the difference is all that big.

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Chris Murray, Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Michael O’Connell and Tim True in Third Rail Rep’s “Penelope” by Enda Walsh/Owen Carey

The title is “Penelope” but it may as well be “Godot.” In Enda Walsh’s dark comedy, Penelope gets more face time than Godot ever got from Beckett (which is just to say she gets a little), but she has the same number of lines—exactly none.

That’s because Penelope is no longer “real” to her tattered band of suitors, down to four after years of disastrously bad wooing and the previous night’s bloodshed. She’s an unattainable ideal, to us a symbol of crafty steadfastness in her loyalty to her husband Odysseus and to them… well, it varies. She’s a construct, not quite a figment perhaps but moving in that direction, and winning the hand in marriage of a construct over a long period of time will reduce a man to his base elements, paring him back to his nub, leave him in a condition of metaphysical doubt and prey to impulse.

At least that’s how Enda Walsh imagines it in “Penelope,” which Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened this weekend at the Winningstad Theatre in a production sharp, daring and superbly acted by four of the city’s best actors (overseen by the silent Britt Harris as Penelope). In 90 minutes, Christopher David Murray, Michael O’Connell, Tim True and Bruce Burkhartsmeier rant and snivel, wrestle and burlesque, boast and buckle under the weight of their impossible labor, which is more enduring themselves and their own company than it is winning Penelope’s hand.

It’s big acting, successfully tamed by director Philip Cuomo, broad then small and intense, comic then tragic. The big bully Quinn (O’Connell) gets to play the fool, too. The comic aging, empty scholar Fitz (Burkhartsmeier) finds his tongue for a moment and describes the “little nothing” within himself so plaintively that even the remote Penelope is moved to pull back the curtain of her second floor window and express something like sorrow, maybe, or existential allegiance. For love, the younger non-entity Burns (Murray) revolts violently against the order of the company. And the balloon of the grandiloquent Dunne (True) bursts numerous times, over-inflated by so much gas, leaving him sad and small.

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