The One Person Show Swims Strong With Walking Ghosts, Indigenous History, and an Old Man and the Pool, Exactly, Where We Belong

The One-Person Theatrical Event Review: Public’s Where We Belong; Broadway’s The Old Man and the Pool; Broadway’s Walking with Ghosts

By Ross

The art of presenting your story. Singularly. It’s a complicated process but one that can reap so many rewards. These one-person shows seem to cascade in, en masse, determined to present their encapsulated story. And the stages of New York City seem to be overflowing with them this season. If they can find their niche or sense of purpose, they can be expanding and exciting, invigorating and filled to the brim with meaning, or, in the worst case, glib and self-endulgent.

Sauntering into the ring ever so confidently, Gabriel Byrne unleashes his memoir and audiobook to the Broadway crowd, attempting to carry us off with his tender, historic Walking with Ghosts. It’s his Irishman’s tale filled to the brim with death, drink, and nostalgic memories, and that is as it should be. That show, enjoyed thoroughly by all that sat around us, is having a short run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, but it isn’t the only one on the Broadway (or off-Broadway) stage. There was Douglas McGrath‘s Everything’s Fine, cut short all too suddenly by his untimely death. Such a sad end to that story. I tip my hat to you, McGrath.

That being said, luckily, we also are gifted, most wonderfully with Mike Birbiglia‘s deep dive into the Lincoln Center waters of unhealthy mortality in the most straight-up comedy of the season, The Old Man and the Pool, delivering personal stories intended to fill us with love, tenderness, laughter, and insight as he wrestles most bloodily with his unhealthy lifestyle choices and attitudes. And lastly, down at the Public Theater, we have a very different deep dive into the complicated examination of Madeline Sayet’s intertwining connections to her Indigenous worldview, colonial history, and, surprisingly, Shakespeare, unpacking itself brilliantly in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s strong, transferred production of Where We Belong. They all work their historical unraveling on us in their own unique ways, some more successful than others, but all do their duty, pulling us into their wild world of wonder, and trying hard to engage and captivate us with their storytelling skills.

Gabriel Byrne in Walking with Ghosts at the Music Box Theatre. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

One that sticks out like a sore thumb that doesn’t exactly hurt, but never fully engages, is Gabriel Byrne’s wildly enhanced Broadway show, Walking with Ghosts. Directed with a casual elegance by Lonny Price (Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard), the streets of Dublin are brought alive in a deep lilac-purple haze, framed three times so he can come home and see himself more clearly. He is the ghost boy, feeling like an intruder in an old haunted familiar landscape. With a simple but somewhat visually nonsensical setup framing the Irish storyteller, thanks to scenic and lighting designer Sinéad McKenna (Donmar’s Teenage Dick), costuming by Joan O’Clery (ENO’s La Traviata), and a solid sound design and original music composed by Sinéad Diskin (Gate Theatre’s The Snapper), Walking with Ghosts saunters its way with ease through a list of tenderized stories about Byrne’s youth and journey through different trades leading him to become the actor standing tall before us.

He’s quite the appealing messenger, showing us where his skill of double, or triple takes come from, as well as guiding us through all the personal charming moments of his parents and grandmother. And I couldn’t help but wonder, of all the youthful tales of growing up, basically anywhere, why is this one gracing a Broadway stage? It’s all very sweet and charming, nostalgic with a capital N, but even as he goes through the list of traumas, that is, sadly, somewhat not all that surprising; alcoholism, mental illness, sexual assault from a Catholic priest, and the death of parents, etc, the inability to structure the piece in a way that gives the whole a sense of purpose leaves us wondering. Do we care only because some of his stories are about the theatre? Laurence Olivier? Or is it because Byrne is a movie (“The Usual Suspects“; “Miller’s Crossing“), television (“In Treatment“), and stage (Long Day’s Journey into Night) star, and society says, that should be enough to draw in the crowds?

That may sound glib, but in the smokey framework of the piece, it does start to feel like a glorified list, with boxes being checked off in between those blackouts as he goes from one framed picture to another. Ghostly snapshots, with a few funny tales, stuck together with an actor’s glue, beginning with a dream and ending with a movie star. I can’t say that I was engrossed by his tales, as they, especially when talking about his family and those that helped guide him, feel a bit too golden and well crafted, like one of those sweet memoir movies in sepia tones that paint glorious images from our childhood. But I wasn’t completely bored either. He spins a good web (Wait, is that what the cracked glass/spider web background is supposed to represent?), but the pieces of that Irishman’s puzzle don’t exactly end up coming together in the end to create a whole worthy of a Broadway staging.

Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Yet, don’t be dismayed. Way downtown at the Public Theater, there is more hope in the process, and it is in the hands of Madeline Sayet, a playwright, academic, and performer, who is filling this small off-Broadway theatre with more worth and value in one act than Byrne did with two. Her Where We Belong draws connectives between colonialism, Shakespeare, and her upbringing as an Indigenous person, one who has been forever tasked by her mother to keep her culture and her language alive and thriving, as it is her responsibility. Always. To think of that first. And foremost. The lines drawn are impeccable and well crafted by Sayet, with intricate portrayals filled with smart assertions by Sayet as she dutifully weaves together ideas that both acknowledge history alongside modern equivalence and uncomfortable conceptualizations.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing structuring, and as I uncomfortably sat, studying my own Indigenous Status Card, knowing full well that this card has granted me so much in today’s world, it is also a reminder of my personal shame, pointing out quite loudly how little I know about that side of my family tree, the Mohawks (not that I know too much about my Scottish side either). My mother was nothing like the playwright or her mother, a central and passionate figure who constantly preaches to her daughter to stand up for authenticity inside of herself and her pathway forward. I don’t fault my mother for that, as she lived through a certain brand of prejudice and racism that I have not had to deal with directly. Homophobia, I guess, is my own personal brand of discomfort to contend with. But deep inside this fascinating production, one that is partnered with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library, a spiritual connection to the Indigenous worldview is laid out and unpacked with a solid smart precision that will inspire and demand your utmost attention, from beginning to end, as we watch her, glued to our seats, wind her way forward and back through Indigenous history to this moment in time.

Directed with a curving depiction of determined authenticity and truth by Mei Ann Teo (Theatreworks Hartford’s Walden), Where We Belong flies, brought to life on that wide-open stage, assisted by a creative team comprised of production designer Hao Bai (Theatreworks Hartford’s Walden), costume designer Asa Benally (Gingold’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession), and sound designer Erik Schilke (“Synthesis“). The Mohegan theatre-maker/director Sayet (Up and Down the River), lays out her wide-winged cultural journey as she travels onward to England to study Shakespeare. The unpacking and blackbird soaring continue with a thoughtful curiosity, especially when she dives firsthand into the depiction of The Tempest‘s Caliban, a character typically described as “half-human, half-monster“, a “wild man“, a “deformed man, or a beast man“, or even “a tortoise“. “Caliban is me,” she states, as she sets forth the idea that the character could be more wisely seen and directed as an Indigenous person, standing bent over within the context and under the weight of colonization. Caliban is the only human inhabitant on this tempestuous island that is otherwise “not honour’d with a human shape” (Prospero, I.2.283) and is forced into slavery. It is a powerful place for this solo piece to begin the difficult, complex, and intimate examination of Indigenous language, culture, and the impact of colonialism, especially from a constructed worldview that in all honesty “wanted it gone.” And we are very game to stay on board with this flight.

Madeline Sayet in Where We Belong at the Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a complex layering of ideas catapulting out from inside the sharp meticulously designed structure of the play, formulated intrinsically in a country that refuses to even acknowledge colonialism in any way, shape, or higher form that makes sense. “Most people don’t like to talk about colonialism,” she tells us wisely, as she dissects her Ph.D. studies, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the character Caliban. This is all while studying inside a learned institution that is working so very hard at keeping that particular English playwright’s language alive and well, all the while shelving and dismantling Indigenous culture and language into boxes in the back, mislabeled as unimportant and irrelevant. The imbalanced injustice is deliberate and intense, filled to overflowing with wise parallels and twisted turns of logic and history combined, that echoes, most insightfully, inside a historic journey to England that was braved by Native ancestors back in the 1700s in a futile attempt to peacefully discuss treatise betrayals and how we might all just get along with one another.

True betrayal requires trust,” and Where We Belong asks its tuned-in audience to ‘think again’ about the history of the Mohegan people and the violence inflicted on all Indigenous people due to colonization, while also unpacking the stories Shakespeare tells about the Indigenous and the way we contend with and comprehend those stories today. “Words mean more,” Sayet states, and the spiritual threads all add up in this thoughtful piece of theatrical storytelling, keeping us engaged because she is so engaged with the material. It’s compelling stuff, and in this well-constructed framework, Sayet has a way of asking questions that feel so simple but are drenched in complexities that are in desperate need to be unwound before flight can happen. In one particular spellbinding moment, Sayet is thrown, faced with an unexpected someone stepping into the confronting stance her mother forever taught her to take. It’s one of those bombshell moments, and that casino jackpot confrontation struck a strong deliberate and winning chord, proposing a simple but profound idea; ‘Could they have been defending us all this time?

It’s not difficult to know what the right answer or the safe side is, but the answer does depend on “which line you’re trying to cross.” Sayet states this idea of border control at the beginning of this many-layered fascinating play that gives us the space to try to unravel and understand our tangled histories. Ultimately, we know in our hearts that the answer is yes. But what follows is more disturbing; living in all of the ‘why-nots.’ To understand that, we must also come face to face and acknowledge colonial violence, greed, prejudice, and outward racism that predominate in North America. We are seeing newsworthy proof of this place numerous times these past few years as unmarked grave sites are being discovered in the backyards of those terrible Residental Schools that were once filled with stolen Indigenous children in both Canada and the United States. The governments wanted to wipe the Indigenous and their languages off and away from their ancestral lands; land that was stolen from them. But we, the Indigenous, do in fact belong here, in this very land and place that is physically a part of our being. It is Where We Belong. Let’s hope that idea, and the words of this play fly high and wide across a world that should be hungry for this ideal.

Mike Birbiglia in The Old Man and the Pool at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Last, but definitely not least, further uptown, in a framework that is very familiar, but from a different angle entirely, The Old Man and the Pool, written by and starring the very engaging and funny Mike Birbiglia (Broadway’s The New One), finds buckets and buckets of humor and connection in his uncomfortable quest to avoid an early and untimely death. Sounds dark, but in most ways, it isn’t, unless intended. And as directed with a sure foot for comedy by Seth Barrish (off-Broadway’s The Tricky Part; All the Rage), the one-person play, which is more like a standup routine than any of the others, swims forward beautifully, even when churning like a blender in an overly chlorinated pool. Birbiglia, once again, shows his uncanny ability to draw us in emotionally, while also making us laugh alongside his sleepwalking thought pattern ever so engagingly vocalized, no matter how many times he repeats himself.

Against a strongly defined and written backdrop, designed by Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s POTUS), with a strongly nuanced projection design by Hana S. Kim (Public’s Eve’s Song), straightforward costuming by Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Birthday Candles), determined lighting by Aaron Copp (Minetta Lane’s Red State Blue State), and a solid sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), the routine never gets tired or looses its forward freestyle crawl. His everyman stance, somewhat worried about his physical health, although casually desperate not to do anything about it, is a worldview that we can easily connect to, especially when he swims his young daughter forward into the mix as he tries to imagine where he will be when she turns nineteen. Birbiglia has that ability and strength, maybe not in the swimming pool, but to harness our core emotions to butterfly forth his comedy brilliantly. It’s a breathtakingly fun night, with or without sugar fries. “I don’t know what to tell you,” but Mike Birbiglia and his The Old Man and the Pool are worthy of the trip to the pool, killing it big time with an emotionally adept, “low-score heart attack” kind of funny, performed perfectly at the vast Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center. This is the one-person show that no one should miss.

Two out of three. That ain’t so bad. And maybe exactly where we belong.

Mike Birbiglia in The Old Man and the Pool at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

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