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Despair and delight

Irish playwright puts actors and audiences alike through emotional wringer

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The savagely funny Irish playwright Enda Walsh is no laughing matter for an actor.

The Dublin-born Walsh, who won a 2012 Tony Award for writing the book for the stage musical Once, has famously said that his goal is to make a part impossible for an actor.

"I have to bring them to a point of despair," Walsh said in an interview. "When they have to think of their character, their brain has to go all over the place. That's excellent. You want to do that to an audience but you want to do it to an actor first."

Bill Kerr, a University of Manitoba associate professor, has personally experienced that disorientation with Walsh's dark drama, The Walworth Farce. He first became acquainted with the work while on a research study leave in Dublin in 2006.

"I remember coming out at intermission wondering what the heck was that," says Kerr, whose area of speciality is Irish theatre. "I was trembling, literally trembling. I was laughing a lot and I was scared. Then I thought, 'What are they going to do for Act 2?' Act 2 was even more so."

Kerr went home and read all of Walsh's plays, including his breakthrough play Disco Pig, The Ginger Ale Boy and The Walworth Farce's companion piece, The New Electric Ballroom. In 2011, he got onstage at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival and performed Walsh's bedbound, a harrowing two-hander flush with swearing, disturbing imagery and visceral stories of cruelty.

His enduring fascination with Walsh's intriguing stage voice led Kerr to again produce and perform in The Walworth Farce for the independent local troupe The Incompletely Strangled Theatre Company, starting 7:30 p.m. March 28 at the Atomic Centre.

During rehearsals, Kerr has felt Walsh trying to overwhelm the four-member cast with a taxing script about an overbearing Irish father who brings his two sons to his flat on Walworth Road in London and forces them to perform the family's history as a raucous farce.

In a bid to be even more demanding of the actors, Walsh notes that the farce should be done in the style of The Three Stooges, vaudeville's sultans of slapstick.

"When we first started, we'd run the first act and think, 'There can't possibly be another act,'" says Kerr, during a telephone interview this week. "We were so exhausted. It's like running a marathon."

The story is built around Kerr's father character, Dinny, who has confined his two sons, played by Winnipeg actors Andrew Cecon and Toby Hughes, and carries out a strange sort of torture on them. It demands that the cast commit to Three Stooges mayhem and then suddenly break into disturbing emotionally wrought scenes before abruptly returning to the other extreme.

"It's calling on every single muscle we have," Kerr says. "It's the hardest."

Walsh, in his distinctive way, is investigating how important stories and history are to the Irish and in particular how they are rewritten to make them more palatable. Much of their past involved losing, but that didn't stop songwriters from penning ballads about martyred Irish heroes and so creating a romantic mythology.

"It's fundamentally about how people live with what they've done and the stories they create about themselves," says Kerr. "So we see both the importance of stories and the potential danger of becoming lost in them."

Walsh, who is collaborating on a movie musical with Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, is not as well-known as his contemporary Irish dramatists Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman) or Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer), but does share their propensity for leaving a stage in disarray. In The Walworth Farce, father and sons do battle on stage with twin-fingered eye pokes, nose twists, frying pans and knives. Combine that with a props list that includes roast chicken, beer, biscuits, Velveeta cheese, crackers and face cream.

"The whole set just becomes a gigantic mess by the end, including the destruction of drywall every night," Kerr says. "We're having a ball."

Theatre preview

The Walworth Farce

Incompletely Strangled Theatre Company

Opens March 28, to April 7 at Atomic Centre

Tickets: $20, $15 seniors/student/low income at 204-880-9097

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2013 C7

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