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The Uline Arena is a beautifully dilapidated old sunken ship of a building. It was, as all mentions of it must also mention, the site of The Beatles’ first-ever U.S. concert, on Feb. 11, 1964, two days after their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The 8,000-ish seat sports hall opened in 1941, some decades after Swampoodle—-an Irish ghetto that occupied the area in the latter half of the 19th century—-had been urban-renewed out of existence by the opening of Union Station a few blocks to the south in 1907.
The Uline is a parking garage now, but you’d want to make art here, a Janet Jackson-circa-Rhythm Nation music video at the very least, if you could get your hands on the place. Arriving at Solas Nua and The Performance Corporation’s Swampoodle, an admirably ambitious new site-specific play running for one week only that chronicles the neighborhood’s history as well as the building’s, you wait for a garage door to be pulleyed open and then shuffle tentatively into darkness. It feels illegal, like a fight club, or a rave. The man pushing a broom in the spotlight on the opposite wall, whom you will eventually get close enough to recognize from prior Solas Nua productions as actor Michael John Casey, seems very, very far away. Lit as selectively and artfully as designer Marianne Meadows hath lit it, you keep expecting Rutger Hauer to kick through one of the walls and break two of your fingers.
It’s an irresistible premise, staging a nonlinear, surreal oral history of the neighborhood that vanished from the place where we’re standing a century ago, the bewildered audience zombie-lurching around over broken concrete, going where the lights nudge them. Familiar, very capable actors address each other by their real first names. More than once, we’re told that the performance will begin shortly. There’s a dance piece wherein the ladies perform in swastika-emblazoned onesies (because, I guess, the leadership of the American Nazi Party once watched Malcolm X speak here) and the fellas in bowties and snorkels. One chaos-intolerant member of the creative team flees by car mid-performance, driving through the audience. The stage manager of this show deserves an award. The actors deserve hazard pay.
And the sound designer deserves…a day or two more to figure things out than were likely available. For much of the performance I attended—-a preview, I am bound to say, and the first performance inside the cavernous space for an audience—-the dialogue was frequently unintelligible, lost inside a deafening echo. The actors use microphones, and their voices are sometimes made to issue, I think through selective speaker use, from places other than where they’re standing, which adds to the ghostly ambience but makes hearing them even harder. This cavernous room must have sounded very different when only the actors were inside of it. Getting rid of the microphones might be the best quick fix.
It’s such a frustrating stumbling block for a piece born of so much honorable work. It’s entirely possibly they’ve fixed it by now (five performances remain). Playwright Tom Swift and the cast and crew have done major research. The yanks in the cast got to join the others in Ireland for a week. They’ve blogged about it. They deserve praise for their ambition to create something unique, something that has as much in common with an environmental art installation as it does with a traditional sit-down-and-watch-it play. The performance I attended had a few breathtaking moments near the end, some involving elaborate lighting projections on the arena’s peeling walls, but others invoking the primal power of voices singing in the dark. (The cast includes Rachel Beauregard, lead vocalist of the Virginia Americana band Deep River, and Stephanie Roswell, among other singers.)
On May 13th, actor Jason McCool wrote on the production’s official blog:
We’ve rehearsed in the Uline a handful of times now, and the thought has occurred to me that we probably don’t even need a play; we could just walk audiences through this space and tell them to imagine a play, and the unbelievable ambiance would do our jobs for us.
I do not disagree. Swampoodle is a grand and problematic experiment, albeit one with more energy and imagination than many companies’ successes.
The play was written by Tom Swift, and is directed by Jo Mangan. Performances take place at 8:30 p.m. daily through Saturday at the Uline Arena. $26.