ArtsEmerson play seems important but scrambled
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 03:10
Few things are harder than trying to piece together Stacey Gregg’s “Hold Your Tongue, Hold Your Dead” (“HYT, HYD”), but it is easy to see by the end that something important has taken place on stage. But what is it exactly that happens? The “HYT, HYD” work-in-progress collaborative began when the cast of actors hailing from the Emerald Isle gathered to share their experiences on the very topic their play discusses. “HYT, HYD” examines the conflict between opposing sides of Northern Ireland’s divide and the emotional ramifications of this political struggle. With such a lofty goal, the work could have flown high. However, though the scenes are performed beautifully, the audience is ultimately left with a series of jumbled anecdotes rather than a cohesive story.
This workshop performance was presented by members of Global Arts Corps, an acting collective that specializes in productions situated in conflict zones and aims to foster reconciliation through shared experiences. “HYT, HYD’s” director and producer, Michael Lessac, was also the creator and director for “Truth in Translation,” a piece about the experiences of South African translators who worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It is critical to bear in mind that “HYT, HYD” was, first and foremost, a workshop production. The show was bookended with Lessac inviting the audience to stay for a question-and-answer session with the actors and musicians (yes, there is a musical element to the play), both to ask the actors about their personal experiences and to critique the play. Herein lies is the real magic of “HYT, HYD”: At the heart of every scene is an actor’s real-life story. Despite occasionally thick layers of emotional showboating, most of the actors’ performances were exceptional. If the goal of “HYT, HYD” was solely to portray a breadth and depth of experiences, then it would survive this review completely unscathed. Indeed, the multi-generational cast seems perfectly suited to the task of expressing shared and individual memories, while simultaneously developing a multitude of relationships between its characters — creating interactions that are at once charming and revolting, depressing and exciting.
In a way, however, the variety of relationships in the show makes its apparent lack of resolution and continuity all the more frustrating. Of all the relationships created in the 95 minutes of drama, the only one that matters is that of Nevin (Ryan McParland) and Kerry (Eileen O’Higgins). Watching the two characters — the show’s representation of the younger generation — try to figure out how to be actual adults is both terrifying and hilarious. “HYT, HYD” becomes a sort of anti-“Peter Pan” as the two characters race to grow up, but the problem for the would-be lovers is that neither knows how to do so. The fact that just one important relationship holds up the play calls into question the necessity of so many of the others developed for the sake of individual scenes; though they are entertaining, what is their raison d’etre?
Perhaps the most important theme in “HYT, HYD” is the relationship between one generation’s past and another generation’s present. This issue becomes increasingly important to Nevin through the play (a matter of life and death, really) as he looks for an anchor to which he can attach his identity. In one scene, he comes tantalizingly close to discovering the truth about his father’s role in the Troubles, as the conflict is called, only to be thwarted by a curt scolding. Nevin’s terse and magnificently angsty response confirms the plot elements set up in the first five minutes of the show.
That is not to say that there is a dearth of tension. “HYT, HYD” is never out to surprise its audience — at least, not with plot points. The tension comes from knowing how the story ends, watching the catastrophe grow from a phantom to full-on monster and understanding in bits and pieces why characters do what they do. The final surprise comes from the information handed to the audience in the last moments before the lights go out — information that contextualizes the play and explains why Global Arts Corps took on this project. “HYT, HYD” has an important message to share, but it may be better suited to venues other than the stage.