Some books and movies and poems do not lend themselves to theatricalization, and that’s certainly the case with Incantata, which is currently being given its American premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Though it’s only 80 minutes long, it felt like an eternity–and not only because of the story–but also the telling. What’s even more annoying is that it tells the same poem, again and again, and seemingly again.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, directed with a lot of busy-ness by Sam Yates, Incantata is a one-man show, starring Stanley Townsend, inspired by the death of his former partner, Mary Farl Powers, an acclaimed printmaker who died of cancer at 43 years old. He plays “Man,” who flails about the small if overcrowded set (designed by Rosanna Vize, lit by Paul Keogan) the entire time, until, in the end, the rear wall of the set collapses, when Townsend walks to the rear only to slowly approach us at the front of the stage.
Relying a great deal on Jack Phelan’s video projections of everything we’re seeing performed on stage, from different angles, a camera positioned upon the top of a chair becomes the Man’s girlfriend, when, early on, he places a shawl around it. The play, such as it is, is his talking to her throughout, with a certain growing emphasis on the cancer she had. He also becomes her, at various points.
What’s harder to say is why, in the very beginning, he’s cutting potatoes, or why, for that matter, there’s a large stack of potatoes in the corner of the set to which he repeatedly returns–even if the play is Irish, after all. Townsend, who may remind you of Zero Mostel, has one magical moment when he laughs and it turns into his crying, in a matter of seconds.
But playing cassette tapes, like so much else in the production, seems like a distraction from the ultimate sense that there’s no there, there. So too, do those projections, that keep drawing our attention away from the play itself to their overlarge images, dwarfing Townsend, who is constantly moving there before us, on the tiny stage.
Nor does the relationship that he’s focused on ever become clear. Did his one-time partner ever become someone he lived with, or a wishful, would-be mate? It never became clear to this reviewer, who kept longing for clarity. She was a cancer-victim, who damaged during their relationship, even as she added little to the story of who they were together, but prevented it from becoming what it might have been. His recollections of their relationship leaves a lot to be desired, as far as understanding it might go.
Incantata (through March 12, 2020)
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org/incantata
Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission