The coke-snorting, alcohol-guzzling, profanity-spewing and sexually promiscuous protagonist of Cuchullain, the one-man show now playing at The Keegan Theatre, belongs to a familiar theatrical archetype: the degenerate anti-hero who compensates for his wayward shenanigans with disarming charm, charisma and bracing good humor. Aaron, the 19-year-old Irish reprobate played with obvious relish by Josh Sticklin, may not convince you that his wanton actions belie an essentially virtuous soul. But you may find him more likeable than you should.
An ad for Cuchullain (pronounced koo-KULL-in), written by the Irish playwright Rosemary Jenkins and directed by Abigail Isaac, compares the production to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Aaron’s persona perhaps more vividly evokes the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, who combines parasitic lawlessness with puerile innocence. Important differences remain, of course. Whereas Kubrick’s Alex, played in the film by Malcolm McDowell, mirthfully indulges in shocking acts of rape and violence that reflect less the triumph of immorality than a dystopian, anarchic amorality, Aaron maintains a distinct moral compass that imposes some contrived boundaries on his behavior – or, at least, some level of guilt when he crosses them.
In this context, Aaron’s varied dilemmas, which unfold in the streets of Belfast, often seem more the result of fleeting passion than outright malice or amoral conditioning. Like Alex, Aaron is essentially a child. Yet unlike Alex, Aaron hardly sees other human beings merely as tools for his own selfish devices. His illicit sexual trysts, his friendships, his drug dealings and his nominal participation in Ireland’s sectarian conflicts adhere to an implicit moral code that endows him with a contorted yet authentic sort of integrity, one that lies outside society’s norms but still to some degree respects the individuals that comprise it.
Still, he has his priorities. To receive disability checks in order to pay back his drug dealer, Aaron feigns suicidality to a credulous government clerk. “Only state’s flag I’m flyin’ from now on is for the welfare state,” he declares shortly thereafter, officially affirming his transcendence of politics. He then quickly adds: “I’m officially nuts.” Aaron’s correlation of the government dole with his own insanity symbolizes the perverse alternate reality that frames his daily life, but it also begs the question: Is Aaron really mad?
It’s not an easy question to answer, and Sticklin’s indefatigable performance only complicates matters. Leaping about the stage, depicting conversations with one bit character after another, and even staging a fight sequence, Sticklin flawlessly creates not only a compelling, nuanced stage protagonist, but also a fully realized mise-en-scène that complements and illuminates its stoned yet hyper-cognizant anti-hero. Indeed, Aaron’s psychological complexity stems in large measure from his acute self-awareness, spurring him to ponder the question of his own sanity with almost comical casuistry. “Surely you have to be mad in the first place to say you’re mad,” he reasons midway through the show. “Don’t you?” He leaves the question hanging, and the production never points in the way of a clear answer. Ultimately, audiences will decide for themselves whether it has to.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Cuchullain plays through July 1, 2012 at The Keegan Theater – at Church Street Theater -1742 Church St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 892-0202, or purchase them online.