Review: ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ at Shotgun Players (***1/2)

(Charles Kruger)

(***1/2)

Boyish playwright Enda Walsh looks innocent enough, but his scripts pack quite a wallop. Photo Credit: Broadway World.
Boyish playwright Enda Walsh looks innocent enough, but his scripts pack quite a wallop. Photo Credit: Broadway World.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“The New Electric Ballroom” plays at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley from September 3, 2014 through October 5, 2014.)

Irish playwright Enda Walsh is about as hot a theatrical commodity as can be. He has won multiple Edinburgh Fringe Awards, as well as a Tony, and, as a screenwriter,  he won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for “Hunger“. He is smart, prolific and wild.

The Beckett-influenced “The New Electric Ballroom” is a fine example of theatre of the absurd. It is about as plot driven as anything Beckett wrote, which is to say, not very. Two sisters living small in a tiny Irish fishing village engage over and over in a ritualistic re-enactment of a shattering moment from their youth, when romance flickered and died one night at “The New Electric Ballroom”. A third sister, too young to remember the original story, acts as audience and confused participant.

The entire lives of the sisters are given over to the compulsive retelling of the past along with a refusal to engage in the present.

(from l to r) Trish Mulholland as Clara, Anne Darragh as Breda and Beth Wilmurt as Ada in "The New Electric Ballroom".  Photo Credit: Pak Han.
(from l to r) Trish Mulholland as Clara, Anne Darragh as Breda and Beth Wilmurt as Ada in “The New Electric Ballroom”. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

The play opens with a long, rambling monologue that begins: “By their nature people are talkers….” delivered to a door jamb by one of the older sisters in a manner both monotonous and haunting. When the conversation flags, the sisters reach into a jar containing conversational prompts: they read the prompt and launch into speeches which clearly have been repeated endless times over the years. They argue over tea and cake. A fishmonger knocks on the door and they abuse him. They relive their adolescence, dressing one another in girlish clothes and makeup, evoking memories of Bette Davis’ simpering old lady reliving her moments as a child vaudevillian in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”. Also weirdly invoked is Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, aristocrats, dreaming of a never-to-happen return to the mythical Moscow of their youth.

But these old biddies are neither aristocrats nor stars, but rather pathetic losers caught in a meaningless existential loop.

The thing is, all this is wildly funny to hear and see.  The monologues gradually reveal a tawdry story of a travelling musical womanizer who treated the women badly, a humiliation they have never got over.

There is an outrageous and unforgettable showpiece of a monologue about a dead dog. The abused fish monger reveals unexpected talents and a surprising past. The younger sister struggles to escape the metaphorical cage they all inhabit.

Breda (Anne Darragh) chases Patsy the Fishmonger off with a broom. Photo Credit: Pak Han.
Breda (Anne Darragh) chases Patsy the Fishmonger off with a broom. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

In true absurdist style, it is difficult to make sense of it all, but Walsh’s torrent of language is irresistibly and deliciously engaging, if allowed to do its work. Walsh has truly absorbed the lessons to be learned from his master Becket, and “The New Electric Ballroom” is the work of a truly insightful disciple.

Barbara Damashek’s excellent direction is supported by fine design elements throughout, and all four of the actors are masters in the style required.

If you like Samuel Beckett, you’re going to like Enda Walsh. Highly recommended.

For further information, click here.

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“The New Electric Ballroom” by Enda Walsh,  produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Barbara Damashek. Costume Designer: Valera Cable. Set Designer: Erik Flatmo. Light Designer: Jim French. Technical Director: Anne Kendall.

Ada: Beth Wilmurt. Breda: Anne Darragh. Clara: Trish Mulholland. Patsy: Kevin Clarke.

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