In-your-face, pathetic, visceral, livid, turbocharged. Such words spring to mind when faced with Occi Byrne, the emotionally disturbed Irish brawler of Conor McDermottroe’s Swansong.
A boiling-point solo performance by Andre de Vanny takes us deep into the mind of a man born to a single mother in the repressive Catholic Ireland of the mid-20th century. Occi’s tale is by turns tragic and funny, violent and tender, vivid and incomprehensible. Unlike his hyper-intense characterization overall, de Vanny’s thick brogue isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless his Occi is a tour de force – the human condition reduced to a raw, throbbing nerve.
We meet Occi as he stands at the harbor feeding his favorite swan, a similarly lonely creature he has named Agnes. Her mate having perished in a bird brawl, she has drawn Occi back to the water after he’s been institutionalized for a period. The water, we learn, has been both a bane and a blessing to him. It’s given him his one true male friend and his most sublime epiphany. But it’s also been the backdrop of his worst expression of rage, a fury he can’t control without powerful medication.
His trigger? A word, a word he can’t even bring himself to speak, a word we don’t learn until the end. It’s not the one you might be expecting, but it jolts us into a firm understanding of the time and place of Occi’s difficult life.
Agnes stands in as best she can for the loving female presences Occi has lost. His beloved mother was poverty-stricken but always proud. A depressed young woman he befriended at the mental institution has turned her life around and dashed his hopes for romance.
But it’s not the events Occi relates that make this a compelling story, it’s the way he tells them: full-on, three-dimensional, raw, poetic, recollected in a tranquility that’s dangerously flammable. Without scenery or props de Vanny’s Occi manifests brawls and joys, a poignant scene at his mother’s hospital bedside, stormy seas, a cruel stint in the army, a sublime visit to the Skellig Islands, a murder. Fever-pitched and fully rounded, he takes us on a dark ride of the heart and lands a punch right in the gut.
Swansong from L. Wolf Productions has played in London, Dublin, Australia, and the Edinburgh Fringe. Skillfully directed by Greg Carroll, it has one more performance as part of the United Solo Festival in New York, Nov. 8 at Theater Row. Visit the United Solo website for tickets.