A middle aged man hires a teenager for sex in a cheap Dublin hotel, but both the older man (Marc Kudisch) and the younger man (Kyle Bielfield) actually want something else. A woman (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) explains from prison why she killed her husband.
These two startling pieces, “Trade” and “Mary Motorhead” are on a double bill as part of this year’s Prototype Festival. They are modern operas, both with scores by Irish composer Emma O’Halloran and texts by her uncle the actor and writer Mark O’Halloran. Each made me struggle with some basic questions, starting with: Why are these operas?
This is not a rhetorical question. Prototype, which began ten years ago, changed my understanding of what opera can be, with such works as 4.48 Psychosis , an adaptation of Sarah Kane’s play about her suicidal psychosis, and Acquanetta, about a horror film star. At their best, the intensity of these operas has been compelling enough to override any concerns about a lack of conventional tunefulness.
In “Mary Motorhead,” which starts the evening, Naomi Louisa O’Connell stands in front of a prison door and tells us her “secret history,” which (unlike the “Big History” that tells of “The men, the big events, the scores and the killings.”) is “of all the small things that happened in your life,” the little events that explain “why we do things. “
This addresses one of the questions I had for both operas: Are these tabloid-ready stories meant to titillate? Ostensibly for “Mary Motorhead,” the answer is no; we’re promised insight into why this character did things. But the details she sings don’t feel like clearcut revelations: She grew up in a dead-end town, got a dead-end factory job, lost touch with her best childhood friend. The one shining moment in her life was when she discovered the sport of shot put (“for the first time, I felt a destination in life”) and participated in a competition hoping to make her father proud. But she was beaten out of third place by a woman named Annette, whom she then violently attacked. She fell in with Red O’Brian, and they were no good for each other.
These incidents, which toggle between the banal and the inexplicable, demonstrated to me why this needed to be an opera. It’s the forceful, prolonged lines she sings that offer us a chance of understanding her despair emotionally – lines such as (when she loses the competition) “Give a girl enough hope and she’ll hang herself” and (when she attacks her husband) “I crack him open to see if he is in there. To see if I am in there.”
“Trade,” a title that turns out to have several meanings, could work as a short non-musical play, not least because of the two terrific performances. Marc Kudisch, 15-time Broadway veteran (from the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” to the comedy “Hand to God” and most recently “Girl from the North Country”) plays an unnamed character that in less experienced hands could be an off-putting stereotype.
He is a husband and father in denial about his homosexuality (“I’m not one of those you know” ), who (we learn as the play unfolds) is seeking out a renewed connection with the younger man after experiencing some recent shocks to the system – the loss of his longtime job, the death of his father, troubles at home. We first see him with a bloody nose; when the young man asks him what happened, he replies: “Nothing I didn’t deserve.”
Kyle Bielfield, whose background is as a recording artist, is persuasive as an impatient, insecure young man, seemingly unaware of his own sensuality although he has been hustling since the age of 14. He too is in denial; he too is struggling, more or less abandoned by his folks, and in effect homeless, moving from mate to mate; his latest host is “a fucking asshole mostly but he’s alright.” – one of numerous examples in the text of a line that speaks volumes about character, and would be more amusing if it weren’t so…elongated by being sung. Another is when the older man says “I nearly even deleted you even, but didn’t coz I couldn’t; this new phone it baffles me, see.”
Even their physical movements say so much about the contrast in their characters – the old man planted solidly, leadenly, the younger man constantly fidgeting. But even the production design — especially the lighting design by Christopher Kuhl — helps take these two characters out of the shadows, and the skewed perspective, and the harsh light of their circumstances, and bring them closer to self-awareness and to each other.
And, yes, the music does this too. I noticed the plucked strings emphasized the tension. Then, after the young man left his mother’s place, he tells the older man that he stayed with his girlfriend for a while, “but the baby cried a lot.” This is how we come to learn he is a father of a 23-week-old baby girl. The older man asks for the baby’s name. And when Kyle Bielfield sings “Chloe” and Marc Kudisch later repeats “Choe,” these are shaded, exquisite musical moments that singlehandedly justify creating“Trade” as an opera.
Trade/Mary Motorhead are at Abrons Arts Center through January 14.