Talk about your Brechtian estrangement: in the opening minutes of The Crumb Trail, before the members of the cast have even got around to introducing themselves to the audience by their real names and by the characters they will play, one of them (Bush Moukarzel) is in our faces reading extracts from ecstatic reviews of this show from its previous travels. Not only do the reviews glow with admiration for Pan Pan’s theatrical gifts and moral importance, they are (within the conventions of their genre) beautifully written, astute and subtly observed.
Thanks, guys – how to make a critic self-conscious.
But okay, self, buck up: you were a reporter before you were a reviewer. Tell the people what you saw, then let them worry about stuff like context, significance, intent, the stuff that stumped you. Even after you heard those other reviews. And read the programme notes. And Googled.
The main Project stage is “stripped bare”, the floor blocked out with tape and marked in stage-jargon segments. There are two doors in a white wall, upstage left and right. Downstage right a table is set vaguely with a bottle and glasses of wine, a breadmaking machine, a soundboard, an Apple laptop and a projector. Another table along the stage-left wall has the lighting controls (including a computer screen presumably listing the cues) and eight of those boxy overhead projectors with the long “necks” that let you point and focus them. Such projectors would appear to be the prop de jour: several of them also featured in the Performance Corporation’s recent Power Point, with which The Crumb Trail shares several other characteristics, including actors who introduce themselves and a messy way with fairy-tales. (I may be groping toward an understanding of why the overhead projectors keep disappearing from the college where I teach.) At the back of the stage there’s a metal bar suspended eight feet off the ground, where the actors occasionally hang by their arms, plus a little set-up for electric bass, guitar and keyboard, where the actors occasionally turn into a noisy indie-whine band.
There’s a sort of a kind of an enactment of Hansel and Gretel going on here, and, with that, a lot of colliding generations: two performers are in their 20s, two around 50. (The latter are Gina Moxley and Arthur Riordan, whose familiarity in this venue seems part of their weathered-ness.) You might say that the actors slip in and out of their various roles, but that verb could imply grace, a quality deliberately omitted from these abrupt performances, which have a little Butoh but no beauty. The beauty instead is in watching them work the technology: YouTube is a full partner here, projected on the white wall.
Sometimes it’s with bits of a few familiar favourites, Muppets dancing or fat guys lip-syncing, more often with videos of the cast shadowing, echoing, illuminating or substituting for the action onstage. (For extra disorientation, you can watch the videos again at home.) There’s also a Skype sex-call, and a hint that the crumb trail of the title might relate to the cookies you leave on your computer as you make your estranged way across the internet. But Pan Pan’s thrills are essentially visual, enhanced because we watch the performers make all the effects happen before our very eyes.
At times, as when writer/performer Moxley, as the Witch, discusses childlessness, you sense that there is something heartfelt going on here. At other times you’re convinced it’s some other organ that is being felt: Aoife Duffin (whose expressive face is ultimately the most compelling, disturbing thing on show) repeatedly reaches into her knickers to finger her, eh, pubic area; on another occasion Moukarzel grabs hold of his own.
On a couple of occasions I felt I was being reassured that all the meaningful stuff I must be missing might not amount to a whole lot: when we’re told the first syllable of the writer’s surname rhymes with “hoax”; and when Moukarzel declares: “It’s stupid, standing up here pretending.” But assuming that something serious is at play here: if we as audience members are implicated in creating narrative, drama and meaning out of this tortuous theatre (see, I really did read the programme notes) then I for one could do with more substantial material with which to begin – more provocative ideas, more engaging language, funnier humour.
Maybe those needs indicate a failure of imagination on my part. Whatever the reason, at a performance involving some of the brightest, most adept people in Irish theatre, I felt I was getting mere crumbs from the rich folks’ table.
Harry Browne is a lecturer in Journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology.