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A CurtainUp Review

By Les Gutman

Most shows, no matter how challenging, deliver their goods in a comfortable way. The audience arrives and is seated. As the lights go down, attention is focused on the stage. The actors, having studied the roles they are to assume, begin to speak their lines. After the final ovation, everyone goes home and resumes their normal lives, hopefully a bit enriched by the experience.

Binlids is not most shows.

First off, it's hardly comfortable, either physically or otherwise. Although there are a number of chairs available, audience members are advised that, unless too infirm, they should stand. In addition to the usual caveats about smoke, strobe lights and so on, there are signs about the premises warning of "extremely loud" sound effects. (For those who may have read my review of de La Guarda's Villa Villa, linked below, where the audience also stands, you will be happy to know you will not get wet at this show. And in spite of all of the similar-sounding warnings, the two shows bear no resemblance to one another.)

Second, there is no stage to which one's focus is drawn; there are five stages spread about the auditorium. The "action" doesn't begin on any of them, but rather with actors milling among the standing audience in what becomes, in essence, a town square. They pass along news of the "internments"-- pre-dawn raids in which British troops arrested and detained, without trial, hundreds of Catholics in West Belfast on "suspicions."

Both of these characteristics can be described as unusual, but certainly not novel. There has been effective use of this sort of interactive, environmental theater before. There has also been pointed, highly politicized theater, a description from which the creators of Binlids do not shrink. What distinguishes Binlids is the marriage of these techniques and a collection of historical stories with a personalized edge. All of the actors in this play have lived with the turbulence of Northern Ireland; some even experienced the specific events portrayed first-hand. It is this "normal life" to which they will all return.

Binlids is a play that is intended to be a part of a process. It draws a picture from within the Nationalist community of West Belfast, mostly through the eyes of its women. It tells of what outsiders know -- guns, bombs, hunger strikes, torture -- through the filter of their feelings: their fears, their humor, their loves and their hates. (Bin lids, by the way, refers to the tops of trash bins that the women of West Belfast banged on the ground to warn of impending trouble.) Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams explains the play's importance thus:
It appears to me that part of the process of creating peace includes, and needs, people reclaiming their own stories and telling their own tales. This has to be a part of any healing process. Getting others to listen then becomes the other part. The sum total of all the parts -- all the stories and the understanding of the stories in their totality -- is what peace and the makings of peace will be all about.
Binlids, in other words, is to be judged not only in terms of how it does theatrically, but in terms of its political utility as well.

As theater, it has moments of raw emotion and somber beauty; it also effectively telegraphs the "experience" of  terror. As it traces the history of Northern Ireland over the past 27 years, actors occasionally step forward to testify -- relating first-hand accounts of their own experiences. Two singers punctuate the play with Irish songs, at once plaintive and defiant, born of the period. The design of the sets (of the entire space really), sound and lights adds greatly to the experience.

The acting could be described as uneven. Sometimes it is poignant and frighteningly convincing; at other times not. The same could be said for the script, which was created in large part through improvisation and sometimes reflects the desire to make certain everything gets told. The first act moves at a stronger pace than the second. Both could be improved with some judicious cutting.

For comparison, I spent a portion of the time seated and the remainder standing and milling with the crowd. I strongly concur in the judgment that this show is best appreciated in the latter mode. There are times, at rallies and demonstrations, when actors become difficult to distinguish from the audience. The partisans in the audience find themselves cheering at the politics rather than the theater. Most of the audience seems to find itself indistinguishable from the actors as armed soldiers pass among the crowd, eyeing leaflets that have been passed out, and as violence breaks out within arm's reach. This, it would seem, achieves the play's highest goal.

Binlids will appeal quite naturally to the New York Irish population and others who share its sympathies for the cause of the West Belfast Nationalists. More removed theater-goers will also find it an unusual, moving, enriching experience that tells the other, less well-financed, side of the Northern Ireland story. As the women of West Belfast chant repeatedly, "Ask us!" "That's not us!"

CurtainUp's review of de la Guarda's Villa Villa
by Christine Poland, Brenda Murphy, Danny Morrisson and Jake MacSiacais
Directed by Pam Brighton
with a cast of eighteen men, women and children from West Belfast 
Design: Robert Ballagh, Dan Devenny and the West Belfast Artists Collective
Costume Design: Anette Shannon
Lighting Design: Conleth White 
Sound Design: Dennis Martin 
Angel Orensanz Center, 172 Norfolk Street (just below Houston) (212) 307 - 4100 
Reviewed by Les Gutman October 12, 1998

This production is also a great excuse to see one of my favorite venues, the Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side. Built as a synagogue (said to be the oldest standing in New York City), it is an unvarnished glimpse at the striking architecture of a fading history hiding just a few steps off Houston Street. As it happens, it's also a surprisingly suitable backdrop for this sort of performance.

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