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Fantastic Performances Light Up "New Electric Ballroom"

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In August of last year, Theatre Banshee put on a critically-acclaimed presentation of Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce, a dark comedy/drama about an Irish father and his two adult sons in a London apartment, endlessly reenacting a part of their past to protect them from their current reality. I found the play to be symbolic of immigrants so caught up in a fantasy nostalgia for home that they can't appreciate where they currently are.

The New Electric Ballroom, also by Walsh, is the distaff flipside of Walworth, a story of three sisters so trapped by their pasts in a small Irish fishing village that they can neither leave nor move forward in their lives, reenacting a traumatic event like a CD on eternal replay. The new production of this play by Rogue Machine continues the company's long streak of excellence, highlighted by a quartet of accomplished performers under John Perrin Flynn's superb direction.

In their home, sexagenarian sisters Breda (Lisa Pelikan) and Clara (Casey Kramer) are telling a story from their pasts, directed by their forty-something sister Ada (Betsy Zajko). The tale told is different depending on the sister, but they both involve going in their early womanhood to visit the New Electric Ballroom to see a band play and to meet up with the attractive singer after the performance. Breaking into this sterile world upon several occasions in the present is the odd fishmonger Patsy (Tim Cummings), who initially just wants to chat but finally expresses an interest in Ada. For a moment, the trap of their lives springs open, if they can only get themselves to walk out the door and back into the world.

Kramer is simply magnificent as Clara, going from strength to strength in her performance. She's wickedly funny in the beginning of the play, wheedling for tea and bragging that the Virgin Mary praised her baking skills. She's then heartbreakingly sad as she vividly remembers the tragedy of her young life. Pelikan excels as Breda, perhaps the strongest of the three sisters, but also the most brittle. It's notable that when Breda tells her version of Clara's story, she ends in bitterness, and Pelikan captures that quality with expert skill.

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Zajko starts her portrayal with Ada as a bit of a cold enigma, gradually revealing the woman crushed beneath the burden of her sisters' past. She tentatively shows signs of hope and happiness in her interactions with Patsy, until, finally, in a reverse of the opening, she is all raw emotion at the play's conclusion, an impressive end to an accomplished piece of acting. Cummings, who coincidentally played the terrorizing father in Walworth, is very different here but is similarly astoundingly good. His delivery of Patsy's oblivious motormouth recitations of village gossip is hilarious, but are also obviously a holding action against Breda wanting him to immediately leave. Patsy is clearly going crazy from loneliness, and the delicacy of his acting when Patsy begins to think his feelings for Ada are reciprocated is just lovely, thrilling stuff--one of the best performances this year.

Having read the play, it's clear to me how much director Flynn and his cast have brought to it in terms of staging--it turns the somewhat more symbolic setting and characters of the script into a real place inhabited by real people. Flynn's talent with getting great work from actors is already apparent, but here he excels at other stagecraft as well, benefiting from Leigh Allen's subtle and evocative lighting design to constantly change mood and place and time. Walsh's writing here displays the influences of Beckett and Glass Menagerie-era Williams, but he's very much his own talent, and his words and monologues blaze upon the stage. I think this is a more balanced play than Walworth, and regardless of that, this production is an absolute winner.

“The New Electric Ballroom” plays through July 30 at Rogue Machine. Tickets are available online.