They might be called Brokentalkers, but this Dublin-based theatre company says a mouthful. PS122's ninth annual COIL festival and the Irish Arts Center bring Have I No Mouth to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where once again the question of communication failure seems to loom. At first glance, this piece could be thought of as documentary theatre, but there is something about the form that makes this categorization talk brokenly indeed. Brokentalkers company director Feidlim Cannon has created a piece that remembers, repeats, and works through his father's (preventable) death in 2001. As Feidlim takes the stage with his real-life mother, Ann Cannon, and a real-life psychotherapist, Erich Keller, what happens becomes an interesting mix of theatre and therapy.
While working through loss via art is not a new concept, I must admit that the particular way that theatre as a medium is integrated into this piece makes it unique in my experience. Feidlim is obviously a trained performer, while his mother is not. Yet the fact that they are both playing themselves, and doing so with a brutal kind of honesty, is riveting. Keller also seems to be a natural performer, and his presence and performance gives the play an outside connection and structure.
Added to the transparent humanity of the performers, Have I No Mouth engages the audience in a series of practical exercises that ritualistically bond the audience and bring them into the story. For example, each audience member is given a balloon as they walk in -- balloons are a theme throughout the play -- and told to keep it handy. It does indeed come into play at a particular moment in the play. This audience participation is about the group and the individual, so no one is put on the spot while being asked to play along with the performers.
The last piece of the puzzle for Have I No Mouth is the particular way it chooses to engage with the medium of theatre. Throughout the story, the play utilizes some interesting staging techniques including: video projection, the use of cardboard cutout figures juxtaposed with live actors, choreographed stylization, and held dialogue cards (think Brecht and Piscator or -- Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually when he tells Keira Knightley's character he's in love with her). Watching untrained actors participate in these explicitly theatrical moments is particularly interesting, and again works against a pure categorization as a documentary theatre piece.
This brings me to an important point: this is one of the bravest shows I've ever seen. For Feidlim and Ann Cannon to relive these sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and some even horrific moments again and again each night in the name of art is something special. The piece is extremely personal in a generous way, as the moments shared with us ask universal questions about responsibility, loss, death, and family. By sharing Have I No Mouth, the Cannons enact a beautiful rendition of their very real Freudian working through in a performance that puts the id, ego, and superego on stage.
Yet Have I No Mouth, in a characteristically Irish way, made me laugh throughout this moving and sincere look at death. In this way too this piece seems to be an in-depth look into how an artist's mind deals with a medical obstacle, much like Tristan Sturrock explores in his piece Mayday Mayday. Like that play, this one is not an easy, light night at the theatre, but rather an interesting and thought-provoking one. The play's stage is meant to live in the mind as much as in the Baryshnikov, so don't expect an action-packed 70 minutes either. But if you're curious about the topic, you should definitely go and see Have I No Mouth, and see the Brokentalkers try to find peace through their mouths and bodies.