Performing Arts: Theater
May 5, 2016
Trembling out of breath, Aoife Duffin stands alone. With what little she has left, she nods as if saying, “Yes, that happened, now please give me water.” It is the type of curtain call we pine for: to the point, with sadistic certainty of the performer’s utter exhaustion. Duffin shoulders the ninety minutes of Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, presented by the Irish Arts Center in the Jerome Robbins Theater at Baryshnikov Arts Center. Amid sandy ground and dank light, Duffin’s instrument is finely tuned.

Ryan uses Duffin’s body gesturally. When in character, she is spatially fixed, traveling in transitions. Postures sustain, representing conversations versus the comprising individuals. Years after the unnamed protagonist is raped by her uncle, a funeral returns her home where they reunite in a car, fetching refreshments. Attempting to assert autonomy as her rapist attempts to rationalize while asking for more, Duffin leans away, embodying the joint caution.

Duffin the performer wears pajama pants and a t-shirt, contrasting unerotic body presentation in an experience of life as a sexually abused teen who reclaims sex as a means to empowerment. Such bodily pedestrianism parallels a pedestrian concept of love, sufficed by physical intimacy and parental interaction, for better or worse. Against Duffin’s physically violent liaisons, her uncle’s purely sexual intent gives an illusory air of affection. When she returns from a particularly bloody encounter to her brother’s wake, her mother’s subsequent shaming is maternal wisdom. Equating love and aggression makes her ultimate suicide her only act of self-love. For most of the play Duffin is hunched; in death, she stands serene as Sinéad Wallace’s lighting fills the depths of an icy lake.

Connecting love and violence lends itself to the tough tenderness of archetypical Irish upbringings. Parenting via threats engenders what is referenced as “conducting the great work,” which, while for some is aggrandizing mundanity as service to God, for our protagonist is her power-hungry promiscuity. For Mother, it is the bartering of guilt – convincing someone else to tell her own son he is dying, and making sure her daughter covers her bruises at his wake to keep up appearances. If a body cannot function portraying such conflicting intentions, how can a family?

The resulting dissociation erases Duffin into a conduit for each character. Her postures, faces, and dialects stay so consistent in a tale of instabilities, our sense of time shifts to one that feels hastened, yet still unfolds in the mad rush of the present. We, too, become detached, unable to sympathize with unnamed characters. The rape scenes are told with neither filter nor affect, trapping us as involuntary eavesdroppers.

Solo shows typically connote autobiographical indulgence. Here, an actress is tasked with portraying everything but herself. What is the distance between signified and signifier? Duffin’s eye contact focuses on those inhabiting her memories. This is not the recounting of a story for an audience; this is a montage of responses to events as they unfold in an eternally present moment.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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