A Fantasy Town Builds a Wall Against Time in “Ballyturk”
Posted January 14, 2018 10:11 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — To that great floating map of unreal estate — the one where you find Shangri-La, Brigadoon and Emerald City — you can add the village of Ballyturk. That’s the title of the dark and enigmatic cosmic farce by Enda Walsh that opened Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. And it’s quite a place to spend — and, if possible, stall — time.
To be clear (or as clear as it’s possible to be in discussing a chimera), Ballyturk is not quite the setting of “Ballyturk,” which is directed with rabid verve by Walsh and features a highly expressive cast of three. That quaint, gossip-clotted town doesn’t really exist, except in the imaginations of a fraternal pair identified only as One and Two.
One (Tadhg Murphy) is the younger of them, a reedy and anxious being, prone to seizures and terrors. Two (Mikel Murfi) is of a heartier constitution, and steadier on his feet, at least marginally. There’s a touch of both Laurel and Hardy and Cain and Abel to these overgrown boys, who sometimes dream of fratricide.
By and large, though, they get along. They have to. For all intents and purposes, they’re the sole inhabitants of their very limited universe. Which would appear to be a single warehouse-cum-bunker (Jamie Vartan is the designer) that looks uncompromisingly bleak, though it has a few tricks up its walls.
Aside from some unexplained red balloons on the floor when the show begins, the room’s main decorative accents are wall-filling, smudged scribbles and drawings of half-formed faces. Such is the lads’ own portrait gallery, which depicts the townsfolk of Ballyturk, whose doings Murphy and Murfi’s One and Two act out again and again, with jaw-dropping virtuosity, in what feels like an eternal soap opera.
What sounds like an intricate radio drama from the world beyond (Helen Atkinson is the sound designer) occasionally penetrates their activities, as do shards of crazy pop hits and tidal waves of somber, romantic music (by Teho Teardo). But One and Two are so removed from what we think of as reality, that when a buzzing housefly invades their precincts, One doesn’t have a clue as to what it is.
People familiar with other work by Walsh, whose early “Disco Pigs” opened recently in a revival at the Irish Repertory Theater, may sense that they’ve been here before. A dramatist of ferociously specific imagination, Walsh revels in placing bewildered but feisty characters in hermetically sealed environments, creating what might be described as ontological equivalents of the locked room mystery.
His “The Walworth Farce,” in which an Irish family of men repeatedly acts out the same play in a crumbling London flat, is the most obvious forebear of “Ballyturk.” Seen at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2008, “Walworth” was a wild ride of a play, for sure, with its author’s distinctive cocktail (Molotov) of madcap stagecraft and verbal fireworks.
But “Walworth” was — to use a metaphor Walsh’s agoraphobic characters would no doubt recoil from — a walk in the park compared to “Ballyturk,” which was first staged in Galway, Ireland, in 2014. The head-scratching ghost of Samuel Beckett, and the more sinister spirit of Harold Pinter, haunt “Ballyturk,” which traffics unapologetically in literature’s biggest theme.
I mean the point or pointlessness of life in the face of death, and how we avoid and embrace our ultimate ends. And, particularly, how people block the view of mortality with small talk and its physical equivalents. As Two observes toward the play’s conclusion, all he and One have been doing with their elaborate fantasies of their fantasy village has been “filling a room with words.”
By that time, One and Two have been forced into a reckoning of sorts by the arrival of a suave stranger in a trenchcoat. Call her Three; the script does. Embodied with the silken swagger of a film noir villain by Olwen Fouéré, Three makes one hell of an entrance.
She also talks like an infernal angel, shifting to song (the nightclub standard “Time After Time,” with good reason) when a microphone drops from the skies. What she has to say — about giving “life purpose by reaching its edge” — is pure poetry and oh-so alarming to a pair of chaps who have been doing their best to sustain their daily rituals of make-believe.
“Ballyturk” is so verbally dense that it’s possible to be hypnotized, if not numbed, by some of its lush spoken arias. Even at 90 minutes, it would be better shorter.
Fortunately, Walsh’s plays by no means live exclusively by the words he so adores and reviles. As a director, he knows how to weave a web of images that defy language. And he infuses them with a kinetic charge that equally brings to mind the mayhem of Mack Sennett and the shadows of Ingmar Bergman. (The crucial lighting is by Adam Silverman.)
For a spirited summing up of the frantic emptiness of our daily routines, it’s hard to match the sight of Murphy and Murfi (even the actors’ names match the vaudevillian sensibility) going through the morning motions of getting dressed, having breakfast, cleaning up and exercising. This is all conducted at a fast-forward tempo with the 1982 ABC pop hit “The Look of Love,” and it is pure, moronic bliss.
It’s hard to imagine a successful version of “Ballyturk” without Walsh presiding, obsessively, as director. As it is, the line between his characters marking time and a writer filling space can feel irritatingly thin.
But no matter your immediate response to “Ballyturk,” it is likely to take up residence in your thoughts after you’ve seen it. I’ve been finding it hard to banish that first, icy image of Three, seen as if at the end of an airless and light-stripped tunnel. For all the teetering towers of language that the boys of “Ballyturk” build for themselves, the last word here, as it is in life, is beyond words.
Through Jan. 28 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, stannswarehouse.org. Length: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Written and directed by Enda Walsh; design by Jamie Vartan; lighting by Adam Silverman; sound by Helen Atkinson; hair and makeup by Val Sherlock; sets by Liz Barker, Jason McCaffrey, Dymphna Tate, Louise Roche; composer, Teho Teardo; props supervisor, Lizzie Chapman; production manager, Eamonn Fox; production manager, Tom Rohan; stage director, Kate Watkins; stage manager, Sophie Flynn. Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse, Landmark, Galway International Arts Festival and Abbey Theater Amharclann na Mainistreach.
Cast: Tadhg Murphy (One), Mikel Murfi (Two), Olwen Fouéré (Three), Eanna Breathnach (voices), Niall Buggy (voices), Denise Gough (voices), Pauline McLynn (voices), Aaralyn M. Anderson (girl) and Brook Timber (girl).