The New Electric Ballroom A Red Orchid Theatre
Brilliant and prolific, Enda Walsh has been a gathering force in Europe since the mid-1990s. But unlike peers such as Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, the 44-year-old Dublin-born playwright has gone all but unproduced in Chicago. Strawdog Theatre did Walsh's Disco Pigs way back at the turn of the millennium. And then? Nothing, as far as I can tell, until 2009, when Galway's Druid company brought his astonishing black comedy The Walworth Farce to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a five-day stand. Now A Red Orchid Theatre is staging Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom in a PTSD-inducing production that I hope will open the floodgates here.
The New Electric Ballroom had its world premiere in 2004, when Walsh was likely working on The Walworth Farce, and the two plays echo each other. The Farce concerns an Irishman who came to London years ago, when his two sons were tots. His idea then was to work in construction, earn good money, and bring it back home to Mum and the Motherland. But awful realities overtook him and the boys, who are now not only full-grown but ingrown. Secluded in a flat on the top floor of a tenement, the three of them continually reenact a daffy, monstrous version of their own story—the family passion play.
The New Electric Ballroom also deals with the insular rituals of a broken family. Ada, Breda, and Clara are aging sisters who share a cottage in an Irish fishing town. Ada, the youngest, appears to be the sisters' ambassador to the world—at least she talks about having a job at the cannery, but who knows? That may a side fantasy of hers. All we actually see is what goes on around the kitchen table, and it's beyond dysfunctional. It's a complete, closed system.
Like the Farce boys, the Ballroom girls have a family epic that they perform over and over again. When I was in college I lived a thin wall away from a very disturbed older woman who would engage in ferocious bouts of chanting at three-hour intervals, day and night—sometimes describing herself, sometimes detailing who she'd like to see dead. Walsh's sisters remind me a little of her, but they've elevated their sickness to a jazzlike art form: the epic retains its narrative pattern, its set pieces and plot points, even as it allows for improvisation.
The story is surprisingly simple, considering its importance to the sisters. When they were teens, Breda and Clara each had crushes on Royal Ray, the lead singer in a local band that played at the Electric Ballroom. Each had reason to believe that he favored her, too. "You," he said before he went onstage one night. "Meet me after." Of course, things didn't turn out as either of them planned, and the result was a trauma that's determined everything since—even for Ada, who was probably home with their parents at the time, too young for rock 'n' roll.
The play is performed, as all A Red Orchid shows are, in a space so oddly shaped and confining that you'd think it was chosen on purpose to fulfill the terms of some perverse theatrical bet. But Robin Witt's production actually benefits from its claustrophobic surroundings, creating a sense of quiet deliberation, intimate, consensual sorrow, that transcends quirky details like Clara's fixation on coffee cake and Patsy the fishmonger's suspiciously frequent deliveries of fish. The New Electric Ballroom comes to resemble what Chekhov's Three Sisters might look like if rewritten by Samuel Beckett: at once mythic and exceedingly tiny in scope.
The cast is plain marvelous. Kirsten Fitzgerald is probably a little too old to be a proper Ada, but she brings a stillness to the role that beautifully bespeaks a woman imprisoned in someone else's life. Laurie Larson makes Clara the Baby Jane of the piece while Kate Buddeke shows us the greaser in Breda. And Guy Van Swearingen's Patsy is simultaneously addled and profound. Just like the play. v
Through 3/6: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, 312-943-8722, aredorchidtheatre.org, $15-$30.