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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
In this case, the hold is the haunting memory (or is it the ghost?) of Portia's dead twin brother who has become an increasingly intrusive image in her world on the eve of her thirtieth birthday. Drawn into a deep depression -- or lead there by a demonic force -- Portia has begun to alienate her family, pull away from her friends and disintegrate under the weight of her emotional distress. The myriad family secrets that are pushing her towards disaster aren't helping much either.
As her loved ones alternately blame and worry, her dead twin brother Gabriel pulls her to the banks of the local river in a spiralling dance of despair. A dance that has been fifteen years in the making since the day of his suicide when he walked into the cold waters just after whispering that he would come back for his beloved sister.
Ms. Carr imbues her piece with references to the world of Irish mythology. Thus the relationship of the siblings has been strange from birth. Never separate, always together, described as "If you asked them a question they'd answer at the same exact time with the same exact answer." So odd was their connection, that fifteen years after Gabriel's death the townspeople still ponder the unnatural relationship of the two. And Gabriel especially was unnerving. Girl-like and aloof, his own grandmother refers to him as an evil changeling -- but one with a beautiful voice that entranced everyone who heard him sing.
Like any good Irish drama, Portia Coughlan is a rogue's gallery of dysfunction. Portia's parents, Sly and Marianne Scully ( Bryan Cassidy and Declan Cashman), are an angry duo ready to heap accusation and finger pointing at a moments notice. Grandmother Blaize Scully is an equally nasty number who hurls insults in every direction, aiming most of the time at her daughter-in-law's face.
Meanwhile, Portia's poor husband, Raphael Coughlan, keeps trying to comfort his wife. But her perpetual disdain towards him highlights his own twisted tendency to seek out cruel and unusual punishment. Especially when it becomes obvious that during their thirteen year marriage, Portia has never been truly happy.
The only lights in Portia's life are her aunt Maggie-May Doorley, one of the town's prostitutes, who is privy to the area's many secrets -- including those of the Scully family. And one-eyed, best friend Stacia Doyle (Stephanie Roswell) who meets Portia for drinks each afternoon as they go to pick up their children after school.
In the title role, Solas Nua's artistic director, Linda Murray, provides a powerful performance of a woman desperately afraid she is capable of hurting herself and others. Running about the stage in bare feet (emblematic of her love of meandering by the river bank), she moves us from anger to compassion towards Portia. And as the story continues in its languid way, we begin to understand the rage and vitriol are not the rantings of a selfish woman, but the anguished outbursts of someone being driven to madness, either by her own guilt or by a ghost bent on selfish vengeance.
Rusty Clauss plays Blaize Scully with a wonderful feisty, cantankerousness that you eventually realize hides both fear and hate. While Charlotte Akin is a delight as the ever supportive Maggie-May who knows more than she lets on, but refuses to divulge her secrets to Portia out of fear for the woman's sanity. Ms. Akin's and Ms. Clauss' battle of words is an especially wonderful scene, as each woman skillfully attempts to cut the other to the core. In the end, Maggie-May has all the trump cards and Blaize is forced to retreat to her son's home where she habitually degrades Marianne out of pure spite.
And happily, Jonathon Church moves Raphael Coughlan from being a tedious patsy to a man so concerned about his wife that he is blinded by his love, which ultimately is not enough to save the marriage.
Director Jessica Burgess has created a highly stylized, floating production that is bathed in blue. Lighting designer Paul Frydrychowski and costume designer Lynly Saunders have each colored anything touching Portia in pale azure. The coloring effect gives a sense of the river's chilly waters and of the young woman's fragile emotional state. The dreamy hue is only broken with the appearance of a maroon dress in the second act -- a gift to Portia from her estranged parents -- which is a harbinger of the blood to come from all this mayhem.
Set designer Marie-Audrey Desy has crafted a bare, black stage that is surrounded by clear plastic hanging from the rafters to represent the river and its wooded banks.
Portia Coughlan is a fluid piece of theatre which unwraps its mysteries slowly and patiently. Far from a perfect play, its ever more bizarre storyline may grow tiresome for some audience members and the heavy accents employed may annoy still others. (I still don't understand the point of realism over audience comprehension.) But if you love a tale of Irish haunting where everyone seems destined for doom, then this show's for you.