Incantata by Paul Muldoon is an encomium, a memorial to American artist Mary Farl Powers, Muldoon’s one-time partner and forever friend who resides somewhere in the memories of his imagination. Written in verse that is rhythmic, reminiscent of the stanzaic form popularized by W.B. Yeats, Incantata, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until 15 March, has been fashioned by director Sam Yates and actor Stanley Townsend into a staged production that dramatizes the speaker’s lament, remembrance and praise of his former lover.
Muldoon’s forty-five stanza poem is a “quiet” elegy turned on its head; the speaker known as “The Man,” rages and rants, pivots and emotes poignance and sorrow that Powers did nothing to stem her lifeblood draining away, gnawed by breast cancer which caused her untimely death. For indeed, in her perspective it was “pre-determined.” The Man doesn’t detail the specifics of why she thought this, only that she believed that the cancer might be treatable with alternative therapies. For her, these treatments did not work. Indeed, her death was determined by her own hand by not going for mainstream medical treatment which The Man believes could have saved her.
To bring Muldoon’s fervid poetry into a staged monologue, director Sam Yates shepherds Stanley Townsend with actions that appear to be organic and intrinsic to Powers. She was essentially a print artist who also worked in cast paper and paper sculpture. She mentored other artists (non printmakers) to bring their work into the mediums of etching and lithography. She helped to found the Graphic Studio.
Before The Man-Muldoon’s poetic speaker (Stanley Townsend) takes the stage, we note an artist’s studio where his/her works hang, prints cascading down in repeated patters of various colors. Until The Man picks up a potato and carves it out and employs it to create his colorful artistic patterns, we do not realize that the massive pile of red-skinned potatoes on the far corner of the studio opposite the artist’s wall of work has anything to do with creating the prints which hang there.
Through Townsend’s felt authenticity and live, on-stage printmaking, Yates staging, and the use of live camera projections which focus on “The Man,” or becomes a stand-in for an objective Powers who bestows her criticism, always there is a florid pouring out of raw emotion. In his soul grief, love, and too many emotions to categorize because they are not neatly rendered or subdued by logic, we gauge the impact of Powers on The Man’s life. Townsend’s and Yates’ collaboration yields an intriguing, enthralling and ever-present, moment-to-moment happening that is emotional art and equivalent to myth-making.
To symbolize Powers’ artistic endeavors and the nature of art’s power to heal and effect the transference of love, Townsend’s The Man actively creates prints using a potato cut, instead of a woodcut. He produces a multicolored series of duplications of form comprising prints from each show. First, the potato’s use is fascinating. It is also referenced in the poem: a “potato-mouth,” that “mouth as prim and proper as it’s full of self-opprobrium.” This reference moves in a refrain to references of the lazy, indolent character Belacqua in Dante’s Inferno and by extension to Samuel Beckett’s stories employing the character Belacqua. The Man, Muldoon’s speaker “crouches” with Belacqua, and then in an extrapolation to Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky of Waiting for Godot attempts to discern what is, in fact, unknowable.
Such are the characteristics of Townsend’s “Man” who attempts to reason with himself about Powers’ fateful decision and blames her for it, yet wonders at the courage or fatalism of it. Perhaps it is a miserable turnaround because by rejecting treatment that may have saved her, Powers deprived the world of her additional art and her teaching presence at the Graphic Studio.
With this evocation of Powers (her vitality helped to establish the Graphic Studio Dublin and drive it from its basement inception to a huge warehouse) not even the memories and reminiscences can be pinned down. Much of their time together in Dublin and Belfast remain elusive fragments. Evanescent phrases are the moments in time that Muldoon/The Man had with Powers consigned to memories of “great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein” and of “what’s mine is yours and yours is mine.” Of “all that is left” of their life together, he lists in a series of things they did, places they went, and flowers they saw, like oxlips and cowslips that had personal, intimate, visual meaning.
How does one even codify into a magical intoning, the essence of another human being and represent with words the relationship that resulted from the ephemeral bonds of love, remorse, argument, and the creative fountain of artistic impulse that the relationship engendered? One puts it on stage to dramatize it. Incantata has found its home in the drama.
Muldoon’s speaker, The Man, infused with Stanley Townsend’s riveting performance remains an incantation to Power’s art, and to art, and the creative impulse that manifests in the arts. That manifestation is born and borne of suffering and is as simplistic, revelatory and symbolic as a bird picking up a “strand of bloody wool from a strand of barbed wire in the aftermath of Chicamauga or Culloden” most probably to use it to build a nest. By referencing two bloody battles, Chicamauga, the second bloodiest battle of the American Civil War and the battle of Culloden where the British quelled the Jacobite uprising, The Man reveals that in the extremis of pain and death, art can be birthed to bring healing and new life, or as Muldoon/The Man aptly states, “a monument to the human heart that shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.”
Townsend’s enlivening performance, succinctly directed by Yates brings Muldoon’s incantation of love, death, remorse, mourning, art and the creative impulse which seeks to heal to a striking dramatic iteration. This is a production which bears seeing a few times because of Townsend and because of the richness of the poem’s language, which I had the good fortune to examine.
Special kudos go to the following creative artists who helped stir the pot into its enchanting evocation: Rosanna Vize (set & costume design) Paul Keogan (lighting design) Sinéad Diskin (sound design) Jack Phelan (video design) Teho Teardo (composer).
Incantata is in its U.S. premiere on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th). It runs with no intermission until 15th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.