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                                  By Eugene Paul

If you have come without preparation to the Irish Rep for this rare showing of Incantata you deserve what you get: a bravura performance by  outstanding Stanley Townsend exhaustively aided by the constant fluidity of director Sam Yates’s  hard pressed ingenuity. You also get a torrent of language and thought intermingled with brilliance and bosh by one of today’s highest esteemed poets, Paul Muldoon pouring his half-heart out in an elegy for the love of his life between his wives, Mary Farl Powers, herself a highly esteemed artist in Ireland and elsewhere whose early death of cancer led to this half ravishing poem.  It eerily reminds of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman but it’s not a play, so hunker down, if you have to hunker down for a poem. 


And I’m far from sure you’re getting the full Muldoon experience because Townsend is a very powerful actor and director Yates has done him proud. Which places you in the baggy pocket of Townsend’s baggier coveralls –cunning Rosanna Vize did the set and costume design - while he has been at work before you, before the performance has begun – or, really, it has already begun as a thrumb of the lights  indicates, although you’ve seen him at work in his artist’s studio well before we’ve all settled in our seats.


 It’s a starkness of a studio, one and a half walls already covered with tear sheets imprinted with  what looks like block print work.  But judging from that large pile of potatoes in one corner, it’s not blocks which have served to print the designs, it’s spuds, lots of them. As the Man continues fussing at one now, Muldoon on hold, some rackety band music on that radio on the floor. He’ll change it to more suitable balm as he eases into grief.


Stanley Townsend in Irish Rep's production of Incantata (Carol Rosegg)


He’s working on a potato, as you can see, because he’s got a magnifying gismo  video camera about the size of two fists clamped to the top of the back  of his only chair, focused on his task.  (Jack Phelan’s clever video design). Result:  you can see projected his carving of the spud; you see projected and magnified his face as he watches himself. And then he gets an idea: he drapes a dust cover over the head of the video camera, creating shoulders and a suggestion of a body sitting in the chair. Presto! He has a companion. A kind of Someone to grieve to, Someone to hear whatever he blethers or spouts, intones or declaims, and never a fear of a kickback.


If you knew more about Mary Farl Powers you would understand the block print business he’s about, although there’s a whiff of it in his logorrhea of connected interests, topics, sweepings, exotica, erotica, a whole connected threading of unconnected glints as they flash in his mind as he keens. For this is Muldoon’s elegy to her, frilled with darting references among the rush of words  driven by ancient remembered pain covered over with a brave face. But Muldoon’s brave face seen on Townsend’s is dourer. Townsend is  a power of thespian lore and experience and frustration having a massive vent thanks to Muldoon. He could if he chose to sweeten his expressions closer to the poet’s mien but that is not his choice nor that of his director.  Sam Yates has made  a  theatre piece out of poetry. That’s hard work.



Hence the bald, unprepossessing studio of a block printing craftsman. Or woman. Or artist, it’s so easier to label so much as art work when it’s really a cousin at most. And each of the artists involved in todays’ vividly staged production is quite conscious of the relationship. Including the major craftsman, Muldoon, without whom none of this would be going on. He kind of basks in that, after half a century of crafting. Which becomes artistry as it becomes spontaneous. So there you are. Lesson there for Yates and Townsend.


Do we, then not hear Muldoon’s voice?  Bite your tongue. Why else would the Irish Repertory Theatre import this distinguished  production for its coterie? In Townsend’s highly dominating performance, in Yates’s intensely  envisioned staging we see/hear bumps and strains of Muldoon’s ravishingly poised cascade of echoing words,  a thin tension of pain underneath all, and it’s enough. Everyone involved has a right to be comfited. Including you.


Incantata. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street.  Tickets: $50-$70 212-727-2737. 70 min. Thru Mar 15.