Misterman's heart of darkness
In the seconds between the darkness at the end of Misterman Saturday evening and the return of light for the curtain call, there was an impressive pregnant silence. Was there more? Would the play find new depths to plumb? If this was the end, how would the crowd as a whole react to the out-of-breath, sweating actor clad in an ill-fitting suit (held up with a rope as a belt) and wearing a pair of improvised angel's wings?
It was a worthy question. Enda Walsh's one-man show is a dark, brutal journey into the mind of Thomas Magill, a man of great faith who just wants to spread the word of God in his small Irish town. Then again, there is also a deep undercurrent of anger and violence in the play, which explodes in the moments before the final curtain.
Walsh's play is also a lot about memory. Thomas has holed up in an abandoned warehouse space, decorated mainly with reel-to-reel tape players. These aid him in re-creating the moments from that day.
Wait. Memory? Tapes? It sounds like a certain one-man play by another Irish playwright. Walsh has acknowledged the connection between his play and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape — there's even a story about bananas here as a sly connection between the two — but it is more than just the use of recordings. Both plays delve into the flexible nature of memory: how our perception of the past doesn't jibe with what actually happened and the tendency to re-edit memories to make ourselves the hero, no matter how horrible our actions were at the time.
Thomas is a man of deep faith — willing to spread the word to anyone who wants to listen, or is just in earshot — but he is also a bundle of insecurities. It's pretty clear from the reactions around him that most of the people in the village think he's at best a strange young man. (At worst, he's likely thought of as a massive nut good only for ridicule.)
There's a lot to pull off here, and it is largely on the back of the actor playing Thomas. John Catron is absolutely riveting. It's a meaty role — he gets to play not just Thomas but Thomas's interpretation of other characters as well — that could easily be overplayed to the point of farce.
Instead, Catron never loses sight of the troubles that permeate every pore of the character, nor does he sell short Thomas's inner rage and darkness. Even when it is funny — and Walsh's script can be extremely funny — the menace never goes away.
While Catron is alone onstage, he isn't the only actor involved in the production. The tapes feature the voices of 11 other characters, and 11 additional performers provide the voices, from Patrick Bailey as Simple Eamon Morgan to Cheryl Willis as Thomas's Mammy to Joe Dowling as fiery and foul-mouthed neighbor Mr. O'Donnell. Aided by the expert sound design of Michael Croswell, the voices and other sound effects add much to the proceedings. Layer on Michael Sommers's terrific set design — centered on the array of antique and functional reel-to-reel tape players — and you have an incredibly rich world for Catron's "playing."
Wendy Knox and Frank Theater have long relished bringing thorny, difficult, and — to put it simply — "wrong" plays to the Twin Cities. This certainly joins that canon, but don't think it is only because of the savage humor or pitch-black ending. The play primarily works as a direct line into each of our heads and the constant editing we do to make ourselves the hero of our own narrative. We've certainly not gone to the lengths of Thomas (at least I hope not), but it is something everyone has been guilty of at some point.
Which may have been part of the silence at the end. Sure, some of it was of the stunned variety, but you certainly could sense that we all had a bit of this crazy man inside of us.
And the reaction? Well-deserved applause for Catron and his journey into an audio heart of darkness.
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