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Acting 101: The most conclusive tests of an actor’s mettle is in their ability to convincingly convey emotions that they haven’t experienced. They might require discipline and memory to store sensations, but this ‘mental database’ (if you will) consists of emotional reactions that a performer has to arch and crimp in order for them to correlate with whatever happens to their character. For example, in an upcoming play I will be playing a scientist who is blackmailed with an incriminating letter into disposing of a body. My most comporable experience is being told by a mugger to empty my pockets unless I wanted the mud on his boot being emptied into my face; but I can toy with the reaction I had to that, and see if I can make it ‘fit’ somehow. What Ryan Sullivan has found is a way, which is clever in theory, of circumventing this expectation that makes or breaks an actor.
‘Incarnation’, the umbrella title for two short plays, is unique in that the rehearsal process does not begin with a script, but with an ensemble of actors who conceive and script a story by way of improvisational workshops. The narratives were to be rooted in the personal experiences of the performers. So, one would expect ‘Incarnation’ to be an exhibition of sublime performances delivered with the conviction expected of someone effectively re-enacting a memorable life experience. As I said, however, in theory this notion works but in terms of execution, the axe needed a bloody good grinding.
The first short play is a fairytale called ‘Little Bear’, derived from a story that one of the actresses read as a tyke. A small girl, played with an endearing air of childlike fantasism by Zoe McNamara, finds herself in the shoes of Ula, a character in a fairy story read by her mother (Shona Thompson). When a fairytale or any dreamlike genre is staged, a suspension of disbelief is required. While books ask us to use our imagination, plays usually show us what we need to see. The stage, which utilized no scenery or props, did not at all resemble the mystical forest that the events unfolded in. With that burden, one has to rely on the performances to create such an atmosphere. In another blow, the narration from Shona Thompson was fumbled and lacking in any vocal nuance; a shame, because done well, narration can paint the semblance of the story, making up for a lack of visual stimulation.
With some length added to the short runtime, ‘Little Bear’ might have made for a stronger piece, because at heart it’s a charming story – a small bear and a hunter (played by the excellent Morgan Millard, whose prowl ‘n’ growl was marred by the fact that he was inexplicably dressed in a three piece suit) are both seeking the moon; one wants to salvage a flower that grows on it to cure her sick sister, the other wants to get rid of it completely to bring darkness upon the forest. After some to-ing and fro-ing, the pair agree to work together to salvage what they each need from the moon. Sadly, the poor ideas (such as the hunter and Juniper having formerly been together) distract from the good and suffer from being crammed in and breezed past – Don’t expect an audience to care about these situations when they rudely hurry by without so much as an explanation.
As for the second, more conventional display, ‘Only Girl in the World’, there is very little to say. The acting is slightly better because of the relatable story, but it’s so relatable that it’s tedious – girl loves man, man is a bit weird, man has a dalliance and can’t commit, girl is sad but will be okay. The plot is about as original as it reads. It might be ‘relatable’, but it’s so commonplace that you may as well stage a play about eating chips and claim that it’s a provocative voyage into the sensation of the weight gain that must follow. The difference between a dramatisation and footage of someone going through problems that happen to 99.9% of us is that a dramatisation throws in plot points to keep things out of the ordinary – the runtime didn’t allow for anything other than the basic and, it pains me to say it, boring tour-de-running-its-course of predictability that it turned out to be.
You can put the flaws of ‘Incarnation’ down to the time they had to stage it, the length of the plays or the fact that actors simply shouldn’t write scripts unless they are talented in both fields. Whatever the blame, ‘Incarnation’ reduced me to frustration that an innovative attempt to turn the magic ‘if’ into a magic ‘when’ resulted in a production that not so much couldn’t find its feet, but couldn’t use them very well.