Irish Repertory Theatre’s US premiere of Incantata, which made its acclaimed debut at the 2018 Galway International Arts Festival, is an emotion-packed elegy to the enchantment of love, life, and art by Irish poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon. Directed by Sam Yates and performed by Stanley Townsend, the fervent piece was inspired by and dedicated to the memory of Muldoon’s former partner, the American-born Irish-based experimental printmaker Mary Farl Powers (1948-92), who lost her battle with breast cancer at the age of 43.
In keeping with its avant-garde roots, the unconventional production does not follow the traditional structure of a play, a monologue, or even a poetry reading. It is presented as a dramatically staged interpretation of the turbulent nature of grief, in the context of a multimedia multisensory experience based in the alternative style of performance art – a genre that was popular during Powers’ lifetime in the second half of the 20th century.
A potent artistic design enhances Townsend’s solo performance of the poem, with a moody soundscape that encompasses everything from original compositions (by Teho Teardo), to rock and pop hits of the era, to classical music and opera (sound design by Sinead Diskin); emotive lighting (by Paul Keogan) that flashes on and off and casts looming silhouettes; live-feed video close-ups projected on the back wall that render the pain and joy on the actor’s telling face readily legible throughout the theater (video design by Jack Phelan); and a compelling set and costume (by Rosanna Vize) that recreate a sense of the studio, work, and presence of the departed artist.
From the moment we enter the space, we see the Man (as the character is called in the program), dressed in paint-spattered overalls with rags in his pockets, immersed in preparing the potato prints on paper that cover the walls, in the abstract style of Powers. At one point, he stamps his own mouth with a potato cut in the shape of the Inca glyph for mouth – a play on his “Incantata” and a leitmotiv in his pained and euphoric elegy. At another point he drapes the video camera and tripod with a shawl, speaking to it and interacting with it for the remainder of the show as if it were his lost love.
Townsend’s intense tour-de-force delivery of Muldoon’s ardent stream-of-consciousness verse is animated by his active movements around the stage, interspersed with moments of focused, exhausted, nostalgic, or despondent silence and punctuated by segments of agonized reiterations of the stanzas that capture and document the Man’s flooding thoughts and memories. His demeanor shifts from explosive to internalized, ecstatic to devastated, as he spews forth disconnected recollections of the erstwhile couple’s good (and not so good) time together, erudite references to art, literature, and theater, and meaningful phrases in an assortment of foreign languages (it might help to follow some of the more arcane passages and associative allusions if you read the poem before you go), in an extremely personal bittersweet expression of celebration and mourning.
While the content and structure of Muldoon’s poem are complex and enigmatic, Townsend’s impassioned and empathetic presentation delivers the relatable roller-coaster ride of emotions that love, life, death, and art incite. Irish Rep’s affecting production of Incantata is not your usual theatrical fare, but an intriguing and provocative synthesis of art, poetry, and performance that will appeal to fans of works on the fringe.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, without intermission.