Birds do it, flies do it. So do snakes, moths, octopuses, weeds, and humans. Mimicry is everywhere, particularly in the theater. Aristotle described a play as nothing more than “an imitation of an action.” Even when working with a new script, actors speak lines already created, execute gestures long since imagined, conjure preconceived emotions. But to call an actor a good mimic is belittling—it suggests a defect of affect or soul.
Raymond Scannell, the performer and playwright of the solo show Mimic, at the Irish Arts Center, is only a fair impressionist. He plays Julian Neary, an antisocial Irishman with a reputed gift for impersonation. Though Scannell’s Neary excels at Morrissey and Louis Armstrong, he whiffs at Hulk Hogan, Yoda, and others. Yet Scannell demonstrates the intensely fine line with which we distinguish mimicry from “real” acting.
The piece, directed by Tom Creed, begins and ends in a dystopic future Ireland. Destitution and factionalism have risen, and the “fashion police” enforce “Human Enhancement.” In the meantime, the play narrates the life of Julian, who from an early age displays a talent for imitating cats, family members, pop singers, and television personalities. After an unhappy childhood, he falls in with a band of radical environmentalists, opposed to pretense and simulation. But simulation and pretense define Julian, who describes himself as a “medley of borrowed sentiments and personalities. Concoction. Scavenger.”
Scannell’s script unfurls much less straightforwardly than this description suggests. He flits unceasingly among Julian, various relatives, and pop culture icons. And his concern lies not with his protagonist, but with the country he hails from. In a program note, he writes that Mimic centers on “the End of the Celtic Tiger.” Conn, the leader of the radical cell, laments Ireland’s own imitations: “As soon as we get a bit of spending money, we construct soulless consumer palaces. Borrow identities off Uncle Sam and Union Jack.”
Such political critique is relevant, though not particularly trenchant. Mimic’s strength, though, lies in how Scannell, with hunted posture and frightened eyes, gradually creates the character of a man who claims not to have one. Even while Scannell reveals himself as an admirable actor, he suggests subversively that what audiences experience as fully realized and authentic may be little more than the amalgamation of so many impersonations. After all, as Julian’s mother says, “You have to pretend to be something before you can be anything.”