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Off-Broadway Review: “Incantata” at Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage (Through Sunday March 15, 2020)

Off-Broadway Review: “Incantata” at Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage (Through Sunday March 15, 2020)
By Paul Muldoon
Performed by Stanley Townsend
Directed by Sam Yates
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“[That’s all that’s left] of that daft urge to make amends/when it's far too late, too late even to make sense of the clutter/of false trails and reversed horseshoe tracks/and the aniseed we took it in turn to drag/across each other's scents, when only a fish is dumber and colder.” – “Incantata”

Stanley Townsend is the celebrated Irish actor who serves as the speaker in Sam Yates’s compelling staged version of Paul Muldoon’s 1994 “Incantata” which appears in the collection “The Annals of Chile” and now playing at Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage. Mr. Townsend, Mr. Yates, and the creative team collaborate to transform Muldoon’s elegy to his late partner Mary Farl Powers into one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of the current off-Broadway season.

Townsend’s performance of the elegy (this is far more than a reading) evidence’s Muldoon’s deep respect and enduring love for the American visual artist Mary Farl Powers who died of breast cancer in 1992 after refusing any treatment. In the first half of the forty-five eight-line stanzas, Muldoon parses his relationship with Ms. Powers from their initial introduction (“thought of that first time I saw your pink/spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,/when you undid your portfolio”) until the final post-mortem: “that this Incantata/might have you look up from your plate of copper or zinc/on which you've etched the row upon row/of army-worms, than that you might reach out, arrah,/and take in your ink-stained hands my own hands stained with ink.”

Throughout the sixty-minute performance, Stanley Townsend embodies the spectrum of Muldoon’s emotional reverie. Every persuasive device – logos, ethos, pathos – employed by the poet is also advantaged by the actor. In particular, repetition, imagery, and figurative language abound contribute to both the believability and authenticity of Townsend’s performance. Just as Muldoon’s words are addressed directly to Mary, Townsend’s performance is addressed to Mary depicted as a person (clever use of a chair, a wrap, and a video camera) throughout. The audience “sees” what Mary the memory of Mary “sees” projected onto the back wall of the set. Sam Yates’s staging is dynamic and deftly supports the catharsis during the closing of the performance (after the actor finally “tears down the wall” of bereavement and remorse.

Both the poet and the actor struggle to express the elegiac tone of “Incantata,” and that is as it should be. ‘Incantata’ as well as meaning “spellbound, enthralled, or fascinated” also means “without song.” The written or spoken or sung word sometimes is not enough to fully express one’s deep grief or longing for what might have been.

There is much more that could be said about Paul Muldoon’s poetic structure including his use of stadium stanza, pressure of form, slant rhyme, the use of private material mostly inaccessible to the reader/listener, literary allusions, and the device of direct address. However, it is preferable to allow Muldoon’s words and Townsend’s performance to wash over us and reflect Mary Farl Powers’s ineffable trust of the present and future, her artistry, and her affection for the one she held so dear.


“Incantata” is performed by Stanley Townsend.

“Incantata” features set and costume design by Rosanna Vize, compositions by Teho Teardo, lighting design by Paul Keogan, video design by Jack Phelan and sound design by Sinéad Diskin. Casting is by Maureen Hughes and Sarah Jones.

“Incantata” runs at Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage (132 W 22nd Street) through Sunday March 15, 2020. For more information on “Incantata” including the full performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit Running time is 60 minutes without intermission.

Visit the Copper Still (right across 22nd Street on the corner of 7th Avenue) for post-performance food and beverage. Patrons of the Irish Repertory Theatre receive a 10% discount.

Photo: Stanley Townsend in “Incantata.” Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Monday, March 9, 2020