Monday, November 18, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Going Home to Milk The Cows" (on Pat Kinevane's performance Before)

going home to milk the cows
by Douglas Messerli

Pat Kinevane (writer and performer), Denis Clohessy (composer) Before / produced by Fishamble and Odyssey Theatre Ensemble by Beth Hogan / the performance I saw was on Sunday, November 17, 2019.

The noted Irish actor/author Pat Kinevane, who has presented, through his association with Jim Culleton’s Fishamble Company in Ireland, numerous solo performances, including Forgotten, Silent, and Underneath, in his new show, Before, is interested in exploring issues that have been mostly comically treated in such movies as Kramer vs. Kramer and Mrs. Doubtfire (the latter of which, somewhat ironically, given the contexts of this performance, will soon open as a Broadway musical); but while the totally imaginary world of musical theater is put to work in Before—musical songs composed by Denis Clohessy, with highly clever lyrics by the actor—Kinevane’s central character, Pontius Ross is far more serious about how his daughter conceived in an intense one-night stand with a woman named Felicity, was literally taken away from him in a far from felicitous encounter.
      Paying alimony, even though his one-night lover has given no real evidence that her daughter is his, the country rube Pontius grows to love the child for the first 4 years he is given visiting rights to see her. Yet one night, returning to the rather wealthy home in which Felicity resides to reclaim a coat he has left behind after his short visit to see his daughter, he finds his former sexual partner having another intensive sex interlude with a ponytailed man, who turns out to be her cousin—perhaps the real father of the child.
      Going ballistic after the discovery of her incestuous relationship, Felicity does damage to her own face, blaming Pontius, whom the police arrest and is soon after denied all access to the child he had grown to love.
      Is it any wonder that the young boy who has grown up in a family devoted to local theater productions—his not-so-handsome father singing, in a strong voice, behind a screen, and his theater-devoted mother, who designs hundreds of costumes for these productions, sewing up dozens of kimonos for a production of The Mikado—declares he hates musicals, which all end in redemptive happiness.
      Yet, we easily perceive, Pontius has been raised under their umbrella, and the actor enters the stage with a “Singing in the Rain”-like protection and quickly gives it up, along with his leather coat, to sing (not as spectacularly evidently as his father) and dances (perhaps not as brilliantly as his hidden hero, Gene Kelly), but with great aplomb. Kinevane convinces us that we might all be stars in the musical genre, dancing and singing our way through somewhat lonely and ordinary lives.
      This actor turns his Cork county rube into a rather sophisticated human being, while reminding us that in Ireland local theater is as beloved as the great Dublin theaters such as the Abbey, where Kinevane originally performed, and the Gate. Kinevane has a powerful, rather charming voice, performing such lyrics where he rhymes, amazingly, words such as “miserable” with “advisable” (credit this fact to the Edinburgh Fringe Review by Rosemary Waugh), and numerous other lyrics that Cole Porter might have delighted in. The songs alone might be a reason to attend this great solo-work. But then there is the amazing dancing (choreography by Emma O’Kane). Kinevance can spin on a dime, play-out scenes from both Kelly’s and Fred Astaire’s amazing dance performances, and, finally, put on white tap-shoes to test the best of them. If he’s a little sluggish, well that’s what this everyday lover, who has lost his heart, is all about.
      Apparently, Pontius has not only lost his innocence, his love (in the form of his lover), but his sexual libido in the sexual assault Felicity has made upon him. It appears he never has never had sex again. “One orgasm was enough to last me for my lifetime.”
     As Kinevane noted in an interview, given the new demands of contemporary Irish culture, there are a great many lonely farmers left in the lurch by Ireland’s increasingly commercial success.
      There is a slight danger that he is arguing here for the patriarchy or even for a kind populist notion of what Irish life should be. Yet, given his hidden love of all thing’s theater, his deep love of his illegitimate daughter, we easily dismiss his sins. He is, after all, performing this all in the great Dublin department store Cleary’s on the very last day of its existence, a store his mother evidently thought might contain everything you ever needed, as the constant interruptive store announcements proclaim, becoming increasingly, as the play proceeds, more and more personal, until the public announcements tell him what he should purchase.
     His daughter has invited a possible meeting after 17 years and he has come up to Dublin with the mixed feelings of a possible reconciliation and, frankly, a psychological reintegration of his years of loss and desire.
     The white dress he buys for his long-lost daughter is stunningly beautiful (costume designer Catherine Condell) as it literally shivers from a hanger on the stage. It is almost as if his daughter has already entered the dress and become the beauty he has lost after all these years. She is on her way to a new life in the US.
      Kinevane’s ending is purposely ambiguous, and readings by audiences will be radically different. The actor/author seems to suggest that he waited and waited, realizing that she would never show up. His later reference to an almost transcendent sense of release in a flight over Lockerbie, Scotland suggests, perhaps that he might have himself died on the infamous Pan Am flight 103, which killed in air and on ground 207 people.
       Yet there is utterly no reason why the Irish farmer, returning to milk his cows, would have been on that flight. It was apparently his beloved daughter, on her way to a new life, who has died in the Lockerbie disaster, the plane on its way from Frankfurt and London to New York and Detroit. All that had been previously taken away from this good Irish outlander was taken away yet again. If he must declare that he “hates musicals”—as much as I personally love them—we can totally empathize with his feelings. He may have to sing and dance his days alone for the rest of his life.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2019).

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