Sunday, January 11, 2009

Under the Radar - "England"

Photo/Martin Kaufhold

Should a critic ever tell you that your style isn't working, they don't mean "quit," they mean "make it work." When Tim Crouch brought An Oak Tree here in 2006, his spartan style was hurt by his gimmick, which forced him to "hypnotize" a new actor each night for an unbalanced pas de deux. His new piece, England, also uses a gimmick, splitting the monologue of a woman dying of a myocardial infarction between two actors, himself and Hannah Ringham, and setting the whole piece in an art gallery (here it's the hidden treasure of the Chelsea Art Gallery).

Location, location, location, as they say, and it's true, for the art--a passion of the protagonist and her unseen boyfriend--fills in the emotions that these neutral performers withhold. In the echoes of the large gallery space, the text overlaps and starts to resemble a heartbeat. A brilliant ambient sound design by Dan Jones helps to add a throbbing intensity to the show, one heightened by the effect of standing up for the first half of the show. Just as photographs cannot capture the layers on a canvas, neither can a description of the pointedly flat script evoke the three-dimensional effect.

The second part is more traditional, with the audience seated. The protagonist has receieved a heart transplant, and has come to thank the donor's wife for this bittersweet gift of life. Crouch starts as the "hero," with Ringham playing the passive translator, but the two soon seamlessly swap, evoking between them the unseen third character, a veiled Muslim woman, grieving for the husband she believes to have been murdered for a rich English woman. Because of all the restraint up until this point (and because of the standard dictation of a translator), the emotion that now bursts out of Ringham is doubly effective. What in Part I was the repeated request to "look" is now overtaken by the demanded "tell," though both are attempts to communicate a similar idea: "Thank you. If it were not for you, I would not be here."

It's a little ironic that Crouch, who is such a rigid writer and performer, begins England in a gallery for Jean Miotte, an "Informel" artist who sought an international language by painting formless shapes that would still be filled with meaning. Then again, isn't tragedy an international language in of itself?

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