McPherson’s theatre critic, who remains nameless, joins the ranks of the great tradition of hard drinking Irishmen connected with the theatre, the most famous one being no doubt, award winning playwright Brendan Behan whose works were never performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (mentioned several times by our on stage critic) but whose legendary drinking took over his life and killed him at 41.
Our critic, the narrative voice of McPherson’s absorbing monologue which opened at the Cube Gallery on Friday night, is much luckier. This perfectly cynical and self-hating middle-aged individual, who can’t be bothered with human beings, earns his life writing columns on theatre by stringing words together without any ideas behind them. He tells us he can’t stand his wife, hates the theatre and we see that he is a nonstop drinker. The only driving impulse left in this meaningless life seems to be lit up one day by the fetishistic glimpse of the beautiful arm of an actress. This exceptional moment opens the floodgates of the protagonist’s imagination and carries us off on a strange adventure.
Perhaps he does have a “breakdown” as the play mentions, but whatever it was; there he goes on a whiskey soaked flight of creativity, carried off by his repressed fears, into the realm of his kindred spirits, those “cool” well-read vampires who live in a community of desire, somewhere on the outskirts of London. In their carousing and vampirish carryings on, they show him a glimpse of himself as the intellectual creature with no conscience he has become. Disgusted by it all, he returns to reality a changed person, still searching for that moment of renewed passion, set off by a glimpse of young flesh, the fetishistic sight of an ankle, a renewed faith in human kind and ultimately in the theatre. .
That is one way of looking at this Irish tale but there are certainly many, including the one that tells us maybe vampires do exist. One would even tend to believe that after Koensgen’s subtle but earthy performance where he gives us all the details of his encounter with that strange individual who suddenly appears one night and invites him over to meet “the others”.
Even the actor’s sudden appearances in the dark, revealing a mask-like face, where candles highlight the lines in that disembodied countenance from whence emerges a most liquidly rich and otherworldly voice, makes us wonder if the actor himself isn’t a real vampire…just passing through. And that is what this is really about: theatre. Its capacity to create illusion, its capacity to make you suspend your disbelief, its capacity to hoodwink you into believing anything. Especially obvious when the actor clicks s his fingers and the lights come on.
Part modern Irish folktale steeped in the lore of magical creatures going way back to that Celtic tradition (although we know that Vampires really come from the Romanian-Hungarian border of Transylvania) with a detour through the writings of Bram Stoker, part contemporary TV vampire craze that can now be acquired at Blockbusters, part fantasies of a troubled mind, part acting out of the traditional Halloween scary stuff (this is definitely not for children), part desire to delve into the twisted mind of those people who write theatre reviews, this play is a marvelous collection of literary and theatrical obsessions written by McPherson and spewed out by the actor/protagonist who, on top of it all, has to keep our attention for 90 minutes. And John Koensgen does it!
A fine performance where Koensgen very wisely almost never tried to impose the Irish accent which was still easily detected in the vocabulary, the vowels and the rhythm of the sentences, and even in the special lilt of the “f” word.
What Koensgen did instead was play with the tonalities of his voice, play with the various styles – rough and tough when he was seriously drinking, smooth and hypocritical when chatting up the theatre people, cruel and insensitive when referring to his wife, nostalgic when thinking of his children, relaxed and unaffected when he was describing his Vampire meetings in the street, breathless and poetic as he obsessed over that beautiful arm in the theatre, highly dramatic as he told us the tale of the old man in the well. Koensgen became an impeccable story teller with his orchestration of moods: cruel cutting sarcasm, spooky narrative, cocky humor, foul mouthed blustering, and elegant moments of literary revelation punctuated with jabs of humor that produced laughs in the most unexpected places. Of course the text is extremely clever; the writing is funny, highly literary but it also sends verbal wafts of whiskey floating through the audience so you almost believe you can smell the stuff
And this actor captured every single word, every single nuance. That was the greatest pleasure of this show. It became his very own text. A very strong reading of a work that is not necessarily crystal clear, at least for the audience. A fine evening of entertainment where John Koensgen again has shown us how he has blossomed into an extremely versatile and accomplished actor whose presence in Ottawa has become, along with the National Arts Centre, one of the focal points of the English language theatre community. .
Of course, the gaze of a person not involved with the onstage part of the production, might have enhanced some of the moments where the rhythm seemed to falter one or two times, but that is to be expected on opening night.
I might add that the atmosphere of the Cube gallery on Wellington St. is a perfect performance space. Inviting and intimate, it glows with warmth that is well suited for an evening of beautiful words and theatrical discoveries with small casts. . The carpets, the black velvet curtains at the door, the chairs and benches, the dark colors of the walls, the vibrant paintings as well as the bar at the back, create the illusion of a huge living room where you want to sit for hours. I’m looking forward to more at the Cube. A good addition to our city’s growing Theatrical West End that bodes well for the future of theatre in Ottawa.
The Cube is on Wellington street West of Holland Ave. just before the Bagel Shop.
Call 613-728-1750 for reservations.
by Conor McPherson
A coproduction of the New Theatre of Ottawa &
The Cube Gallery
Lighting designed by Martin Conboy
Featuring John Koensgen as “the Critic”