This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.
It’s a rare gift for a play to present a despairing character with both lightness and the sincerity he deserves. Silent and its subject, Tino, are by turns funny, bleak, and feverish, but always riveting. One minute into this show, as Tino slowly emerges from beneath a blanket on stage in a kind of haunting, playful dance, you’ll know what you’re in for: a keenly observed, carefully crafted, fluidly executed character study brought to life by a spectacular performer.
A solo play, written and performed by Pat Kinevane and directed by Jim Culleton for Dublin-based theater company Fishamble, Silent is making its DC debut this month at the Atlas Performing Arts Center thanks to Solas Nua, a contemporary Irish arts organization in DC. The play netted a coveted Olivier Award in 2016 and has been staged around the world, but stepping into Atlas’s Lab Theatre II, you’d think it was tailor-made for that space. The all-black theater engulfs the audience in total darkness, and the smartly directed lighting creates a cinematic array of spotlights, alleyway glows, looming shadows, and even disco flashes in one terrifying scene. The small room and low-lying seats allow Kinevane to walk among the audience with ease and strike up conversations as he goes. Tino isn’t soliloquizing; he’s looking us in the eye, telling us a story, and making sure we’re listening.
This direct, down-to-earth communication does nothing to diminish the subject’s flair for the dramatic. Named after Rudolph Valentino by a mother obsessed with silent film, Tino is capable of his namesake’s wild theatrics. Present-day Tino is a homeless man in County Cork, but he inhabits various times, bodies, and personas throughout the show. In one of the play’s running jokes, he dials a mental health line with an absurdist automated menu: “If you have multiple personalities, please press 1, 2, 5, and 6.” Through Tino’s multiplicity—and Kinevane’s genius ability to transform objects, negative space, and himself into absent people—we meet his strict, self-conscious mother, his beloved older brother Pierce, his long-suffering wife Judy, his childhood self, and a cast of fleeting characters.
Tino mostly relays these characters to us in conversational style, but at times he launches into pure performativity. Silentgives us a new take on the play-within-a-play. Over the course of the show, we watch five “films” complete with titles, pre-recorded dialogue booming through the speakers, and Tino acting out every part with dancerly panache. The films center on his brother Pierce’s attempts on his own life. Tino obsesses over Pierce throughout the play, and traces many of his problems—clinical depression, alcoholism—at least in part to his suicide.
It is through this storyline that the theme of silence is most wrenchingly reinforced. Pierce was queer, and harangued for it by other boys and his own mother from a young age. Tino blames himself for never speaking up in his brother’s defense. Even after his death, Pierce’s story remains shrouded in silence; no one at the funeral will say the word suicide, even though, Tino tells us in a fury, “the word was always there, begging to escape, behind the corners of everyone’s downturned mouths!”
Silent film stars made their facial expressions and gestures speak the volumes they could not. Tino uses the medium to turn a story that was muted and swept under the rug in his own life into an epic for all to see.
Pierce and Tino’s relationship is most moving because the play devotes so much time to it. Tino reminisces about what his brother would say in his sleep when the boys bunked in the same childhood room, about finding Pierce’s pornography (Cockatoo Magazine), about how he dressed and who he hung out with. Some other elements of Tino’s story are less convincing. The tale of his wife kicking him out of the house for drunkenness and his distance from his adolescent son feel more like tropes because these moments and figures in his life are never fleshed out. In attempting to present a complete tapestry of Tino’s life, Silent leaves some areas a little threadbare. This never throws off the show’s balancing act, though, because we’re sufficiently invested in Kinevane’s entrancing voice, fitful bursts of madness, and elaborate choreography.
Solas Nua has arranged to make a certain number of tickets available to those experiencing homelessness in DC for every show. Upcoming performances will also feature a series of talkbacks with Kinevane and representatives of local organizations fighting poverty and providing services to DC’s homeless community. These practical conversations on what can be done to alleviate the suffering presented in this play are a crucial follow-up. It’s one thing to walk away from Silent with renewed empathy for marginalized members of our own community, and another to work toward dismantling their marginalization. This production takes experiences we often overlook, and will not let us turn away. Nor will you want to.