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New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival, a three-month endeavor of The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., celebrated the innovative work of a prominent contemporary Irish dramatist with artistic and intellectual vigor. The spring festival spotlighted three of Walsh's more recent plays, presented collectively for the first time: Penelope, The Walworth Farce, and The New Electric Ballroom. A variety of ancillary public events took place during the festival, including a conversation with the playwright in residence, a seminar on Walsh's works and influences, a day-long symposium on new Irish arts, a [End Page 646] screening of Walsh's award-winning documentary Hunger, and readings of contemporary Irish plays.
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The festival was artistic director David Muse's first venture to expand the international scope of the company's theatrical programming. The Walsh Festival was related to the larger aims of "Imagine Ireland," a year-long initiative to showcase Irish arts across America in 2011 and build new relationships and audiences through creative and critical engagement with international art. With a reported initial investment of €4 million, "Imagine Ireland" demonstrated the high value that Ireland places on the arts. It is not surprising that The Studio Theatre chose to concentrate on a contemporary Irish dramatist. The company has frequently produced Irish drama, including Sebastian Barry, Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, and Mark O'Rowe. Walsh's plays employ common themes and elements in Irish drama, such as fascination with "the stranger," imagistic language, degeneration of memory, and familial dysfunction, but the plays' darker passages particularly suited the aims of the festival, as they disrupted insularity and nostalgia for the old, yet expressed ambivalence about the promise of the new. The Walsh Festival thus situated his plays in an uncertainly liminal time that both contextualized them more broadly and challenged the notion of a "new Ireland." Walsh's storytelling as metatheatrical reenactment—staged at times as video, violent pantomime, and lyrical soundscapes—forced a deep examination of identity crises and grim social realities. In all three productions, the elements of design, staging, and acting highlighted the plays' menacing inevitability as a kind of contemporary fate from which the characters cannot escape.
The Walsh Festival opened the week of St. Patrick's Day with Penelope, an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey performed by Druid Theatre of Galway, Ireland, and directed by Mikel Murfi. Here, the dangerous role of fate was embodied in water forms. Sabine Dargent's set design, a backdrop of magnetic blue, contrasted Penelope positioned in her palace above with the men gathered in the deep end of an empty swimming pool. Poetically resonating with the sea just beyond the palace, the background lent perspective to the otherwise speechless Penelope, and the visual allusion to the sea drew attention to Odysseus's prophesied return and vengeance. Dargent's set and Paul Keogan's lighting provided watery metaphors for the play's characters, who figuratively treaded deep water, submerged themselves in alcohol, and were, generally, "washed up." The anticipated return and possible vengeance juxtaposed [End Page 647] against the sodden and seemingly inescapable defeat highlighted the tension between optimism and fatalism in Walsh's treatment of the "new."
The staging further intensified the characters' predicament through a tragic-poetic mix of performance styles. When activated by the presence of Penelope (Olga Wehrly), an onstage camera became functional. The space darkened to spotlight a series of solo performances projected onto her flat-screen television. Via the screen, her suitors presented personal appeals of love in a stratagem of pursuit. Each man, a decade apart in age, courted Penelope with approaches ranging from philosophical inquiry to absurd pantomime. Although their monologues attempted to woo, the suitors' stories showed their inability to express genuine love or to gain freedom from the tales that entrapped and ultimately defeated them. Penelope departed as the camera shut...