By Orla O’Sullivan
“Pondling” is a mad play. Between its unusual theme of a child’s descent into madness, the maniacal energy of its ultra-expressive solo performer and the magical mood partly created by lighting and sound, it is also quite captivating.
These things could be mere gimmicks had actor Genevieve Hulme-Beaman not penned such a credible and sympathetic character, who might have been simply endearingly eccentric had she not been let slide into psychosis.
Effectively abandoned, this 9-year old orphan lives on a farm with her brother and grandfather who “have long conversations about killing animals.” Meanwhile, she creates elaborate work routines of jobs that no one notices, talks to the chickens (“chickens are extremely good at keeping secrets”) and cultivates a crush. “Johnno Boyle O’Connor was an older man,” she says. “He must have been…14 by now.”
In her mind, the fashion-fixated girl is Princess Diana or “a beautiful swan-girl,” the French-accented Madeline Humble Buttercup. We first meet her “ready to go back to school in a week and a quarter and show them how brave and free and beautiful I was.”
But as the slights against her grow, she becomes increasingly enraged and desensitized to others’ pain. The first hint of violence, in her love of crushing cans, becomes a louder call of “look behind you!” to the audience’s subconscious. This, as the character’s shadow self is projected to loom large on the stage wall behind her (kudos to Colm McNally for set and lighting design).
We aren’t given the name of this highly imaginative child, who is addressed only once by the main adult in her life, her guardian, and then as a “stupid girl.” She is a void, like the murky depths of the pond that gives its name to the play and whose dangers we will come to know.
In what might have been a turning point, she imagines she has met her mother, the feminine influence she craves. “I walked up to them and presented my offering,” she says. It’s one of several occasions of pathos.
The “offering” to a local girl and her glamorous mother is a kind of gruel fed to the farm chickens. As usual, she is out of synch. Similarly, in an early encounter with Johnno after she has cut her own hair to be, she believes, stylish, she recounts: “He said something very strange about me fighting with a lawn mower…”
“Not wanting to make him feel silly,” she continues, “I laughed along politely”—and emits an alarming, deranged squeal of laughter.
It’s one of several instances where in an autistic-like way she does not get social intercourse. Yet, she is kind enough to try and salvage the feelings of the other party. Oh, cruel world that cannot reciprocate for this exceptional child.
At least the Stewart Parker Trust in Ireland recognized the value of this work, bestowing its prestigious annual award on Hulme-Beaman in 2014. Remarkably, the Dublin author was just in her early 20s when she wrote the play.
“Pondling” by solo performer Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, from Dublin’s Gúna Nua Theatre, is at 59E59 Theatres, New York, NY, until Sunday, Oct. 4. Tickets/information from (212) 279-4200 www.59e59.org and www.1stirish.org.
Misfit finds a shoe that fits
“If I’m 50 what does that make me in gay years?” asks the drag queen in “Language Unbecoming a Lady.”
“Oh, yes, I’m dead,” she calculates flatly.
We are meeting the Divine Diana in her dressing room, but if it was mid-week in the bank in Dublin we would encounter her as “Robert from accounts, he’s quiet—a bit shy.” If it was in his hometown of Limerick, we could expect Bobby, a regression to his less confident and somewhat redneck self.
Robert, played by the author Myles Breen, is reviewing his life. He’s a complex composite, yet in this most simple, human story we acutely feel his difficulty in being wholly accepted in the world. Robert was almost 30 when homosexuality was legalized in Ireland in 1993 and is still flabbergasted to find in 2015 Gaelic footballers casually coming out and Ireland having become the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.
The political asides are there only to make it easier to understand how hard it was for Robert to come out to himself—his loathsome self, he suggests—not to mind to the rest of the world.
The play is not preachy. Nor is it what one might fear from its description and title. A drag queen inspired by the divas reviewing his life and loves. Would it be one of those solo shows that is a cover version of some celebrity’s life? Does the “unbecoming” language mean trying hard to shock?
It started vaguely in that bawdy vein but quickly explored the extraordinariness of an ordinary life: universal themes of unrequited love, early sexual fumbling, finding community and coming into one’s power.
As for language, it’s safe to say this will be the only play you’ll see that references the “tuiseal ginideach” (one of the declensions in Irish/Gaelic).
This play is worth seeing for a host of reasons, among them Robert’s withering retort to a homophobic slur one night he is out in drag. “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever have.”
Breen is hilarious and mesmerizing when he inhabits a host of female vocalists, including “St. Liza, begotten of St. Judy.” He first began to find his place in the world through musicals in secondary school, the only occasions when he was more than “just about tolerated.” He loved the fantasy characters who “even if they had a problem, at the end of two hours it would be sorted.”
Years later, he encounters a crusty queen who becomes his protector. Dolly fronts Dolly Mixtures and the Allsorts and Robert’s first performance in drag happens by chance one night when the ensemble needs another person to perform at a lucrative, private party.
Dolly insists: “Robert, you’re going to go out there a nobody, you’re going to come back a nobody, but at least we’ll get f****** paid!”
Au contraire, mon cher -- a star is born.
“Language Unbecoming a Lady,” by solo performer Myles Breen, is directed by Liam O’Brien of Bottom Dog Theatre, Limerick. It runs at the Cell, 338 West 23rd St., New York, N.Y., through Sunday. Tickets/information from (212) 868-4444 or www.1stirish.org.