Stanley Townsend is a charismatic actor, as he demonstrates in the staging of the highly unusual, hour-long poem “Incantata,” written by Irish poet Paul Muldoon and being presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre. Previously enacted at the Galway International Arts Festival, it is having its U. S. Premiere.
When we enter the theater we see Townsend already on a stage moving about as an artist creating designs on paper spread out on a table. There is a camera attached to a chair focusing on his work, which is being projected onto the back wall. Townsend labors meticulously, expressing the art of printmaking, and there’s a reason for that.
When the play formally begins, Townsend, identified in the program as Man, plunges into the words of Muldoon, who has written this poetic work as an elegy creatively mourning the death of his long-time partner, Mary Farl Powers, who was a printmaker. In the process of the expression of love and pain we get two basic views of Townsend.
We see him moving restlessly about the stage, and we see his face projected very large on the screen. I was surprised by my favorable reaction to this technique. Recently I criticized the use of such projection in the new version of “West Side Story” as belittling the actors made to look miniscule by contrast. But on the small stage of the Irish Rep, there is interwoven intimacy, and so much of Townsend’s performance depends on reading his various facial expressions—pain, exaltation, intensity, being transported etc.
Muldoon’s writing is very complex and it is a great challenge to bring it to life in a theater. After all, he wrote to be read, not dramatized. But in the hands of Townsend the work emerges as absolutely fascinating in its cadences and references, an outpouring of poetic observations and feelings. The very experienced actor compels us to listen carefully in an attempt to devour it all. Communicating the thoughts of Muldoon, he can make one think of personal loss as well as that of the author.
One leaves the theater appreciating having seen a great performance, as well as the direction by Sam Yates, whose staging helps make the production so vivid. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737.