Fusion Theatre Company’s The New Electric Ballroom
Such a night
When the Fusion Theatre Company appears at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 26, it will offer a production that Santa Fe’s theatergoers will probably find themselves thinking about long into the coming week. Rather than wait for that performance, I decided to catch the play earlier in its run, at the company’s home at the Cell Theatre in downtown Albuquerque, a small but comfortable space of about 50 seats, all of which were occupied at the matinee on April 18.
The play is The New Electric Ballroom, written in 2005 by Enda Walsh, a muchdecorated Irish playwright who has achieved his greatest fame in this country for authoring the book of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Once. Last September, Fusion scored a solid success with its production of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside
Mullingar, a romantic comedy set in a downat-the-heels Irish village. The New Electric
Ballroom transports us to a similar locale, in this case a fishing port on the Irish coast and specifically into the combination sitting room and kitchen of the modest home occupied by three sisters. Clara and Breda are entering their advanced years, while the considerably younger Ada is perched at a point when the prospects for romance are growing ever less likely, their possibility diminished further by the weight of bitterness she shoulders.
Being Irish, these women fill the silence with talk — or at least the two older ones do, while Ada more often stands pouting or withdraws to escape the claustrophobia. They recount the same tales in the same glorious words, and sometimes the tales float from one character to another. Mostly they talk about the defining incident in their otherwise joyless lives, the single night long ago when they traveled to a dance at the New Electric Ballroom to hear pop singer Roller Doyle, a regional Elvis Presley type whose dressing-room door proved open to young ladies who might make themselves available for his (and their) pleasure. Clara and Breda were both contenders for his favor, and they have never really moved on since that night, living out their lives in a relentless repetition of sibling rivalry.
Into the fringe of their existence intrudes Patsy, who drops by several times each day to deliver a crate of fish. The women seem to resent his presence and invariably discard the fish. It is an odd foursome born of some intersection of Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien; and yet they appear to meet one another’s needs in some indefinable way. Eventually, the older women allow Patsy entry to their world as an embodiment of their fantasy of Roller Doyle and their magical moment of sexual awakening — a potent memory they are now intent on reenacting as a way to entrust it to Ada, a means of transferring to her “the patterns safe.”
The Fusion players offer this work in a tight ensemble performance. Laurie Thomas, as Clara, is the most overtly daft of the bunch, a sort of Baby Jane but sweet at the center. Nancy Jeris, who excelled in Outside
Mullingar last fall, brings a degree of nobility to Breda and proves quite terrifying when she wants to change the atmosphere. Jacqueline Reid, as Ada, has rather less of a part, but her hovering presence nevertheless casts a long shadow. All three charge their roles with nervous, intense unpredictability. From his opening appearances as a pliable and disposable visitor, Bruce Holmes builds the character of Patsy into something monumental and powerful, testimony to the breadth of his interpretation. Walsh’s writing is irresistible, wildly poetic in its way, and the four often deliver it through monologues that can resemble elaborate arias. Gil Lazier has not directed the play in an obviously comedic way, although there is much in the production that evokes smiles. Instead, the audience is kept wondering precisely what is going on, glimpsing clues now and then, piecing together what seems to be a reality within a strange household. Although not laid out as simple narrative, the play holds a viewer’s interest ceaselessly through its uninterrupted span of an hour and 20 minutes.
Attendees may come to different conclusions about exactly what story is being told. For my part, I became fixated on clues that kept piling up to denote The New
Electric Ballroom is an addled allegory of Christian belief and liturgy — not so surprising, given the probable lives of impoverished people in an Irish village. The play opens with the ritual adoration of sacred garb that, we gradually learn, is a symbol of Roller Doyle and that will eventually elevate Patsy (who, it seems, is Roller Doyle reborn as the Son). He will grow worthy of the outfit only through a holy cleansing, a baptism that leads to “a new beginning” (as one of the characters terms it), “a new day for us,” all this “adoration for one man” who keeps arriving bearing fish. One of the sisters has baked a pound cake that sits untouched for much of the play. The cupboards are filled exclusively with water crackers — communion wafers, one might say — which Ada distributes as austere substitutes while the vestal sisters forgo the luxury the pound cake connotes. “What would the Virgin Mary think of all this, I wonder,” muses Clara of this peculiar domestic adventure of sacrament and initiation. Still, the play does not strike an evangelical stance vis-à-vis its viewers. It simply builds potent theater out of the strands of experience, memory, and belief that have informed the lives of these unusual but intriguing villagers.
— James M. Keller
Bruce Holmes and Nancy Jeris in
The New Electric Ballroom