Ladies & Gents
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
March 19, 2008
Currently there is something quite remarkable, and yet also legal, going on nights in the toilets near the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park: an intriguing production of Ladies & Gents, presented by the Irish Arts Center and Semper Fi. This site-specific piece, set in 1957 Dublin, combines a range of creative devices and solid talents to make one of the more unusual nights of theatre one gets a chance to experience. The piece has the feel of a film noir from the '50s, as well as an implied Grand Guignol sensibility (by implied, I mean that you won't see blood, but you will feel it). Ladies & Gents is ultimately an eerie and quite effective production, deserving of your time.
That said, as I was walking across a foggy, slightly cold, rainy New York evening to see a play performed in public park toilet, it began to seem like a really bad idea. However, from the get-go this production assuredly guides its audience along and creates a way through the unknown safely while retaining a necessary sense of unease. Although the audience does stand throughout, the production consists of two separate scenes, each a concise 20 minutes. As long as a person isn't schlepping an oversize bag along, it's comfortable enough and well worth the standing, as these pieces are compelling. Because so much of the text being unknown is fundamental to the experience of Ladies & Gents, I am going to be vague on plot details. Know that each scene does have a distinct tone, they combine well, and they reflect interestingly upon each other. If you want a sense of plot consider this: Ladies & Gents is a helluva tabloid story; it is bathroom—not kitchen—sink drama.
When the production is ready to start, the audience is gathered and given cards that determine which toilet each audience member goes to first. Luck of the draw had me going to "Gents" and then "Ladies." Both scenes are played performed twice, simultaneously; the order in which they are seen influences how the story comes together, and I am still curious of how I would have responded if the order had been the opposite (that is, if I would have felt the same about the characters; I wholeheartedly believe I would have liked the show just as much).
A news vendor, played by Seán Gormley, sets the tone for all with his detached yet compelling delivery as he introduces the parameters of the night. The audience relationship to space is fundamental in Ladies & Gents and is manipulated immediately as he sets it clearly and solidly at the top. The audience members are then guided to their respective initial toilet and each given specific places to stand. At the end of the first piece, there is a very brief intermission and then each group is brought to the other toilet. Within both spaces very effective lighting design by Sinéad McKenna heightens the disquiet and is especially vivid in "Gents," where the lighting has an evocative photo-shoot-like feel. The discomfort is further strengthened by the music and sound design of Ivan Birthistle. They combine to create an enhanced reality into which the actors enter simply.
There is a slightly aloof air to the performances, as if director Paul Walker intends them to float their characterizations on a sea of apprehension. While there were a few moments where I questioned if there was quite enough underneath of what was going on between characters, it is a largely effective tact and will most likely strengthen as the production goes on. The cast is uniformly strong and each has moments that came back into my thoughts after the show. In particular I found Laoisa Sexton's characterization of Emily adept at bridging the sensibility of that era with modern perception, so that she is in "period" but recognizably human. Her part is written in a way that could have easily become stereotypical and instead she brings a specificity that makes her motivations comprehensible if not exactly agreeable. Also notably fine is David McDonald's coldly theatrical Mr. X, who in one scene provides all sorts of red herrings that strengthen the mysterious element and in the other is actively alarming.
A few site-specific comments for audience members: The toilets are remarkably clean and lacking any odor one would expect—kudos to the parks and/or production staff. While the space is sheltered, dress appropriately to the temperature and be sure to wear sneakers or solid shoes that won't absorb the cold from the cement floors on chillier nights.
But make every effort to see this production. It is unique and fascinating, and not to be easily duplicated.