The Drunkard’s Wife promises “maximalist” theater. The company’s new Madame Lynch indeed delivers lots of activity, colorful costumes and characters, music and dance, and a decades-long survey of South American history. Unfortunately, except for an appealing opening sequence and a couple of other bright spots, all the flurry adds up to a whole lot of not much.
Juliana Francis Kelly is charismatic in a larger-than-life way as haughty Irish-born Eliza Lynch, uncrowned “Queen of Paraguay” and real-life national heroine of the 19th century. Dictatorial in a white gown, she is in this interpretation the epitome of flouncy, entitled European excess far out of its element.
But almost as soon as others begin to demand our attention, the show loses focus. Characters debate philosophy, explain native mysticism, talk us through the litany of Paraguay’s (actual) dictators, gad about, gab incomprehensibly, and fall down for no apparent reason at a ball that’s supposed to be wild and crazy. The resulting jumble of sound and color has far too little of the kaleidoscopic energy the creators seem to have hoped would take the place of dramatic thrust.
A pleasant sequence of traditional Paraguayan dance is pretty, but monotonous, and not connected to any of the other action. The one really compelling sequence, an expertly executed verbal catalog of the country’s birds, stands isolated as well.
It’s almost tangential that the acting among the secondary characters is sometimes poor. The cast could do better, even with the dribbles of material they have. The direction (by the playwrights, Normandy Sherwood and Craig Flanagin) surely bears some of the blame. The actors seem to have been instructed to reach for a stylized mode. But except for Kelly, and sometimes Nikki Calonge as Madame Lynch’s foundling ward, most of the performances come across as simply amateurish.
The live band is used disappointingly sparingly. Video projections on small oval screens are artfully arranged but too small to create a sense of immersion or additional dimension. There is one effective projection sequence, where Eliza, standing stock-still in her white dress, is overlaid by changing flower patterns and a shroud of dark bloody red. This is one of the show’s hints of the violence and tragedy that were a part of the real Eliza’s story.
The writer-directors also design some revealing blocking for Madame Lynch and her minions. But as far as what’s comprehensible, they tell the meat of the story with words. And their words fail to carry the weight that a lively historical sore thumb like Lynch deserves.
When effectively done, collage-style theater can both entertain and indirectly instruct. This Madame Lynch is an energetic attempt that for the most part does neither. It runs through June 15. Tickets are available at the New Ohio Theatre website or at 212-352-3101.