By Stanford Friedman
Since September 2nd, in the foothills of the new Broadway season, in a handful of small venues around town, the 2015 Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival has quietly been displaying its gems brought from across the pond. Or, in the case of the mesmerizing work, Pondling, not so quietly at all. There is nothing subtle in this one-woman show, written and performed by Dublin actress Genevieve Hulme-Beaman. There is stomping, yelling, slamming and simulated injury to farm animals. This, you see, is a monster story, complete with rampages and dark shadows. And this particular monster is one that is as familiar as it is terrifying: an unsupervised pre-teen girl with an active imagination.
As Madeleine, the petite Ms. Hulme-Beaman takes us into the inner workings of a frustrated child’s mind. She’s in love with an older man (age 13), she’s quite pleased with her stockings, she enjoys her bike, but prefers chatting with the chickens on the farm where she lives, or admiring her reflection in the pond. She seeks out new friends, plots against perceived enemies, and craves a mother figure. But mostly, she fancies believing that she is a French speaking swan, a sort of elegant avian chanteuse named Madeline Humble Buttercup. “It means a beautiful swan that lives in the white woods, you can remember me by that.” she says, in what can only be interpreted as a creepy little homage to Blanche DuBois. At the heart of it all is the force that has driven creatures of every sort and every age to extremes: desperation. Madeleine is desperate to be beautiful, desperate for attention, and desperate to be loved, in ways familial and otherwise. And when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in a good Irish play, the results are chilling and grim.
Under the keen, brisk direction of Paul Meade, Hulme-Beaman brings a wonderfully eerie (and Éire) physicality to her role with an intense stare that could melt glass, and arm and leg gestures that are one part skittish child, one part Frankenstein. Her thought processes are equally bipolar; childlike observations dosed with vengeful scheming. She is Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, with undercurrents of Stephen King’s Carrie.
As a playwright, Hulme-Beaman has a deft ear and is clearly in love with language and with the classics. She quotes Yeats, references Narcissus, and bestows Madeleine with an obsession for certain words. She thrills over being called Hun, “the kind of word that’s only ever shared between two lovely and glamorous ladies.” And when she is introduced to the phrase “en suite bathroom,” Madeleine cannot get “en suite” out of her head, chanting it demonically as if possessed. Colm McNally’s lighting design adds to the fright with footlights that at times throw huge shadows of Madeleine across the back of the set, her dark moods made manifest.
Pondling – Written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman; Directed by Paul Meade.
Light and set design by Colm McNally; Sound design by Osgar Dukes and Denis Clohessy; Trevor O’Connell, production manager; Christine Lemme, stage manager. Produced by Gúna Nua Theatre Company (Dublin, Ireland) and Ramblinman for Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival, 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, (212) 279-4200, www.59e59.org. Through Sunday, October 4. Running Time: 70 minutes.