Swansong / Bottom of the Lake

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 2, 2009

Tim Ruddy in "Swansong."
Tim Ruddy in "Swansong."   

Two haunting plays by Conor McDermottroe from the new Celtic Gothic idiom get splendid productions in the Plaza Black Box theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in the South End.

Tir Na Theatre Company (which translated from the Gallic means Land of Theater Company) presents a new play from McDermottroe in tandem with an earlier play the author himself once performed.

The playwright has been compared to the more established Conor McPherson, whose "Shining City" was produced by the Huntington Theater recently; however, based on the program at the BCA, McDermottroe is his own man. More reasonably, these two writers and others such as the Scottish David Harrower whose harrowing "blackbird" is currently at the SpeakEasy Stage, also at the BCA complex, deliver high-voltage playwriting that is unlike anything else we're seeing.

The two one-acts, "Bottom of the Lake" and "Swansong," are so strong as performance pieces that the minimal production approach works extremely well. A rustic scene painted on a back wall and the lake water painted on the floor (from set designer Andrew McAuliffe); apt lighting design by Karen Perlow; and perfectly modulated sound by Stephen Russell (who also performs) are essential in these stories where ghosts and memories are as integral to the tales as the time of day or night.

In the newer piece, "Bottom of the Lake," a young man and his older companion with fishing poles are sitting in a skiff in the middle of a lake. It's New Year's Eve, which, according to the custom of the area, ushers in a new opportunity to win a sizeable purse for catching a big fish that the resort hotels would serve up to their guests, a sort of good luck start to the year. A clock sounds across the water, but the younger of the two fishermen is uncertain whether it struck 12 or only 11. A fish reeled in before the midnight hour would disqualify the catch. The banter about the fine art of fishing and the thoughts occasioned by the sounds of a passing disco party boat and a ferry take the story into realms that one of them can hardly bare to contemplate.

Gordon Myles Woods (a native of county Leitrum, Ireland) is endearing as Raymie, the lad whose very youth becomes painful to contemplate, while Stephen Russell as the older Josie makes our heart ache in the way veterans from long ago wars do when they march on Memorial Day. The memorable piece is directed with a deft hand by Tim Ruddy, who has enviable experience in Irish theater especially for so young a man.

"Swansong," the older companion piece, offers McDermottroe's bruising picture of life for one young man with a hair trigger penchant for violence. It was initially directed and performed by the playwright in the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since then the poetic one-act has been produced in London and elsewhere, and most recently been expanded into a movie, "Occi Vs. the World," McDermottroe's first feature film as a writer. The story is of a young man who is born out of wedlock in the 1960s in a conservative town on the west of Ireland. A childhood accident, in which he banged his head while being rolled down a hill in a barrel, has left him mentally-challenged and a target of taunts by the locals.

In a highly physical performance, an animated Tim Ruddy is unforgettable as the paranoiac Occi. He can be touchingly tender when speaking of caring for his alcoholic mom and his tender romance with a young woman; or frightening when he displays his blind rages and awful acts of vengeance for supposed slights. The play's title "Swansong" initially refers to Occi's feeding of a swan on the nearby river, but in a larger sense refers to the end of relationships in Occi's hard scrabble life. The direction of Ruddy's tour-de-force performance is credited to David Sullivan, although there's no bio of him in the program.

The remarkable "Swansong" and "Bottom of the Lake," which excites our humanity even as we despair, continue at the BCA only through March 14. Next in line for this bare-boned production are dates in Europe.

Through March 14, 2009 @ Boston Center for The Arts/Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass. For more information visit the theater company’s website.