The following scenario is fiction.
A playwright and a choreographer walk into a bar. The Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh, has never heard of the American choreographer, Lar Lubovitch, but guesses he makes pansy-looking modern dance. Lubovitch, by contrast, is a big fan of McDonagh’s plays and films. He orders a whiskey tonic and starts gushing about the violent comedy In Bruges and those plays about the crazy misfits living on Irish islands.
“You know,” Lubovitch says to McDonagh, “I’ve always thought The Cripple of Inishmaan would make a great ballet.”
McDonagh chokes. Literally spits out his Guinness. “Are you fouckin’ mad?” he says. “How could you possibly turn that play into a ballet?”
Here’s the nonfiction scenario: Choreographer Susan Shields, a former member of Lubovitch’s company, has collaborated with playwright Heather McDonald to create STAY, a dance-theater work about crazy misfits living, ostensibly, on a Scottish isle. There’s a reference to Iona, an island known for its Celtic monastery. But it’s unclear if we are actually in Scotland (there are characters named Pheeny, Duncan, and Eilean) or if the name “Iona” merely suggests a mysterious place where Christianity is important. That’s pretty typical of the references in STAY. You could easily spend 90 minutes trying to figure out what’s a metaphor aimed at the audience, and what’s reality for the characters onstage.
As in McDonagh’s Aran Islands Trilogy, we have a menagerie of emotionally handicapped characters—drunks, busy-bodies, clergymen, and troubled teenagers—who struggle to process their reactions, most of which are related to people coming and going from the island. The main difference is that instead of resorting to violence, these characters, with one notable exception, resort to dance.
The show is presented at the Lansburgh by Theater of the First Amendment, the resident company at George Mason University, but grant funding for the production came from the Center for Consciousness and Transformation. That may explain why some fine D.C. actors are onstage spouting New Age-y aphorisms like, “We all possess the power to free ourselves from prisons of our own making,” and, “How do you see someone coming from a great distance? You have to be looking for them.”
A more accessible STAY would be a more powerful one. As is, one option for audiences is abandoning ship (when it comes to plot) in favor of enjoying the island scenery (at least until you get to the part about the cutter). The ambient soundtrack features Eluvium, Cloud Cult, and Moby. Colin K. Bills directed the lighting and James Kronzer designed a set strewn with shore rocks and suitcases. The distractingly cool projections are by Gregory Crane.
Scenes depicting slices of island life are punctuated by interpretive dances—for example, a photographer delivers a monologue about meeting a Cuban dancer on a beach while former Washington Ballet dancer Laura Urgellés swirls around him. He’s in awe, and as he awkwardly learns to lift her, we get a beautiful metaphor for blossoming relationships.
The best non-dance moments come when three men sit around an imaginary bar, drinking and riffing on stories from the New Testament. (Who was that other Mary, anyway?) But any settling in with these characters is undermined by STAY’s inexplicable plot shifts. A couple that waltzes together in one scene is screaming, “I don’t love you anymore!” By all means, let’s see more playwrights and choreographers collaborate, but they should be wary of what happens when the dancing delivers the work’s themes more effectively than the words.