Rhyming dialogue in Terminus reveals surprises beautiful, shocking

February 18, 2011

Rhyming dialogue reveals surprises beautiful, shocking

By Toby Zinman

For The Inquirer

February 18, 2011

Celebrating 100 years of touring in America, the famed Abbey Theatre of Dublin brings its astonishing production of Terminus to the Annenberg Center. Written and directed by Mark O'Rowe, one of the hot new Irish playwrights, this show is one of the highlights of Philadelphia's season-long Irish Festival.

A wooden, silver-painted frame outlines the stage; it seems to be more a window or a mirror than a proscenium. Huge shards of glass dangle above and are scattered below. Three people, who seem to be random individuals but will turn out to be deeply, intimately connected, crouch in the darkness. One by one they stand and speak, always in monologues. This isolation, given their connections, is chilling, as is so much in this beautiful and hideous play. (Because much of its power lies in discovering the links among their stories, I'll try not to spoil any surprises.)

A middle-aged woman (Olwen Fourr) is a former teacher who now works on a suicide hotline. Suddenly, she recognizes a voice, a former student who is eight months pregnant and wants an abortion and who hangs up before she can offer help. She goes out into the night to find her, revealing in the course of her monologues that she is estranged from her own daughter. She is tormented by regret.

A young woman (Catherine Walker, in a performance of great delicacy) will reveal first her loneliness, then her delight at meeting a man, then her betrayal by her best friend. She will, eventually, meet a grotesque demon lover and fly with him through the sky and into the earth.

A man (Declan Conlon) wants more than anything to sing and be adored by crowds; he trades his soul to the devil in exchange for the talent, only to discover that his paralyzing shyness keeps him from using the gift. He will, in the course of this same, horrifying night, kill many people.

There is no action onstage. The effect of each character's narrating the night's appalling events - eye-gougings, slashings, worm-covered kisses - is that we have to visualize it all. As O'Rowe said, rhyming, in a recent interview, "You can't look away, because everything that's said is already inside your head."

And it's the way it's all said that is so remarkable, since O'Rowe is a razzle-dazzle wordsmith, and the entire play is in rhyme. And it's not just in plain old rhyming couplets, but is chock-full of linguistic devices that delight even as the content they relate exhausts and assaults. For example: "There's the theft of what's left, the tune, and soon the pruning of thought itself, and I try to reclaim my waning name in vain. . . ."