Theater

Lippy Speaks Volumes at Abrons Arts Center

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A sense of aftermath hovers over Lippy, a shrewdly
calibrated production by the Irish company Dead Centre receiving its U.S. premiere at Abrons Arts Center. The ostensible subject is garish: It’s the true story of an aunt and her three nieces who boarded up their house in County Kildare and starved themselves to death in 2000. That monstrous action comes freighted with mystery, as well as possible political values in Ireland, a nation with a history
of potato famine and hunger strikes. But even in hindsight, how can we really see into these women’s minds and know what their deed was expressing? To do so in the wake of such a tragedy — any tragedy — is impossible. The women’s motivations and psyches lie beyond our imagination,
anchored in another moment, another subjectivity. We would only be speculating, perhaps projecting our own fears
and misperceptions onto them.

Lippy investigates these women’s stories starting from that premise, and the results are often splendid theater. As another
reminder of our vantage point — after and outside the tragedy — the play begins with a post-show discussion. An interviewer (played by Bush Moukarzel, the show’s co-author and co-director) awkwardly poses questions to one of the yet-unseen show’s participants. He is a lip reader (Dan
Reardon) who ends up giving a demonstration of his craft that only underlines the
potential for misreadings of actual events: He puts words in the mouths of his
subjects, voicing their thoughts.

When the “post-show” palaver eventually ends, we see a forensics investigation through a gauzed scrim — another mediating layer. Amid trash bags and detritus, four figures reconstruct the tragic death scene, becoming those women in Leixlip sitting silently at a table with empty plates. We watch them configure into tableaux-vivants in catastrophic but beautiful white light, like figures in a painting. (Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa comes to mind.) The Lip Reader tries to entice them to eat, but they are nearly lifeless sculptures — bodies in decay, corpses before death’s arrival.

Despite these exquisite visuals and evocative ambient sound compositions, a few choices in Dead Centre’s scheme are problematic. As he inserts himself into scenes, voicing others’ thoughts, the Lip Reader speaks his lines as if they are catechisms — perhaps to emphasize the ritualistic role he enacts. This sometimes makes his interventions in the women’s narrative dramatically confounding, rather than
underlining his distance from a scene’s emotional mysteries.

Another problem: Lippy‘s final part, a video of a single, enormous lipsticked mouth covering the whole screen, makes perfect thematic sense in a play about how we interpret the unknowable thoughts of others. But the mouth’s lengthy discursive monologue on the flat screen undercuts the previous scenes’ visceral power. The speaker, a woman, tells of her discovery that “man has in him the devil/And a woman is a worthless thing.” She speaks of finding God, and “this wait/Endless/For an end.” Death, the mouth tells us, is “not an event but a process.” Moments later, the stage sits bare and empty before the lights fade — more aftermath.

With echoes of Samuel Beckett’s video experiments and Romeo Castellucci’s stage hallucinations of cosmic terror, Lippy is a small-scale triumph of insight and empathy. Dead Centre takes a powerful, if occasionally arch, excursion into a dark place in the human psyche — compelling to watch and delightfully unintelligible at the same time.

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