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Review: Taking the lid off

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

BINLIDS, by Christine Poland, Brenda Murphy, Danny Morrison and Jake MacSiacais. Directed by Pam Brighton. At the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, 172 Norfolk St. Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2, through Oct. 23. Call (212) 780-0175.

To begin with, there’s the title. "Binlids" refers to the tools, ordinary garbage can covers, used by Catholic women of West Belfast to warn their neighborhoods of approaching trouble. Crouching on the sidewalk, they would crash the binlids against the concrete to inform anyone within earshot of the presence of British troops in the vicinity, signaling the threat of arrest or of military raids.

Now and through Oct. 23, that sound will be recreated eight times a week on a series of wooden stages constructed at the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, at 172 Norfolk St. on the Lower East Side, for the American debut of a play, fittingly titled "Binlids," drawn from the actual experiences of Belfast women and performed by a company made up of professional actors from Northern Ireland and some of the housewives and mothers whose lives provided the material in the first place.

The audience, standing in the open space between five specially constructed acting platforms, or seated off to one side or another, will bear witness to a kind of bitter scrapbook whose pages are being acted out before their eyes. The women of "Binlids" are telling stories that are, in fact, their own, and those of their friends and neighbors, and reenacting moments from their lives, incidents they initially experienced in the streets and living rooms of West Belfast. The sense of imminent terror, initially part of the incidents, has now been replaced, perhaps, with the deep sorrow that comes with reliving memories of intense pain. Performing "Binlids" night after night and matinee after matinee cannot be an easy task or a comforting experience, particularly for the troupe’s women.

The play’s authors are officially listed as Christine Poland, Brenda Murphy, Danny Morrison and Jake MacSiacais, but, to an extent, the text appears to have been written collaboratively, with additional contributions having been introduced as the developmental process went along. Of the four credited authors, only Brenda Murphy, a granite pixie, is acting in the current production.

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In addition to the Orensanz Foundation, the play’s producers are Justus Community Theatre, the Irish Arts Center, and Dubbeljoint Productions, the latter an organization founded by "Binlids" director, Pam Brighton, and Belfast playwright Marie Jones, author of "A Night in November," currently revived off-Broadway in a production with Brighton as director.

"Binlids" was first performed at last year’s Feile an Phobail, the 10-year-old West Belfast Festival, selling out every performance and then returning for a two-week run last February. The play itself is, in a sense, an expansion and development of an earlier work, "Just a Prisoner’s Wife," with male professionals added in an attempt to broaden the base of the play’s reality and to accommodate material added to the text of the first effort.

"Binlids" makes an admirable effort to be fair-minded, which cannot have been easy for the participants, some of whom have been imprisoned for long and painful periods of time, with one woman in particular having been a prisoner for eight years.

Nevertheless, although the loyalist point of view may not have been articulated with quite the fullness that might have been hoped for, the British of "Binlids" are presented, often as not, as human beings caught up in an imponderable situation not specifically of their own making.

The experience of "Binlids" is immediate and inescapable, quite literally so, with the actors re-creating a funeral or a rally, shoving their way through the standing portion of the audience, or, at other times, handing out leaflets, urging the recipients to vote for the late Bobby Sands, who, while on prison hunger strike in 1981, was elected to the British Parliament.

The production the gifted and tireless Brighton has put together is what’s rather trendily called "environmental," with smoke periodically swirling around the edges of the audience space, and expended cartridges bouncing at spectators’ feet from the numerous blanks fired during the course of the production.

Occupied country

Although the smoke canisters and the spent shells add to the impact made by "Binlids," and serve to heighten and intensify its considerable power, they are by no means the core of the event. The palpably beating heart of "Binlids" is to be found in the eyes, the faces, and, perhaps particularly, the voices of the performers, only four of whom, all male, can technically be classified as theater professionals.

The majority of the 28-or-so individuals who journeyed from Belfast to New York to re-create "Binlids" have not, of course, experienced the horrors and indignities of imprisonment, but they have, except for the very youngest members of the company, known the realities of life in what amounts to an occupied country.

"Binlids" is a little bit ragged around the edges, but while some of the text, containing jagged fragments ripped from the pages of the recent history of Northern Ireland, complete with names and dates, may elude all but the best-informed American observers of the Belfast scene, the overall impact of what this company of men and women is not to be denied.

A girl of perhaps 13 is shot as her mother watches. A young priest is killed on the way to ministering to a fallen civilian. A cab driver is slain by a "passenger." A young husband is ousted out of the sanctity of his own home and subjected to mindless torture.

The parade of swiftly paced vignettes continues, sometimes a touch too quickly for all but the most alert and most fortunately situated audience members to totally digest, but the impact builds, solidifies, and gathers strength as the two-act performance continues and approaches a stirring resolution in which hope combines with a stubborn sense of unstoppable continuance.

"Binlids" is very much, and very correctly, an ensemble effort, but a few individuals must be singled out for their work. Much of the music of "Binlids" is provided by a sober-looking, closed-eyed Terence O’Neill, whose beautifully modulated voice seems to come directly from his heart and soul, without detours.

The earnest crew-cut wearing Brenda Murphy, one of the authors and one of the longest-interned prisoners, moved a well-known American actress attending an early performance to comment, "This reminds me just how naturally acting seems to come to the Irish."

Among the men, Jim Doran is particularly outstanding as a victim of torture, and, later, as Gerry Adams, while Conor Grimes, Mark O’Shea, and, perhaps especially, Noel McGee, offer solid support in a variety of roles salted through "Binlids."

Of the women, Niamh Flanagan and Bridie McMahon, alongside Murphy, do work that renders the word "amateur" totally meaningless.

In terms both of what it is and what it represents, "Binlids" is a modest, unpretentious tribute to the inherently imperishable qualities of human courage and endurance.

Sorrow is built into the bones of "Binlids," but perhaps the saddest single aspect of the endeavor is the brevity of its tenure in New York, perfectly housed in magical confines of an elegant old structure on Norfolk Street, a rare and beautifully time-battered building that was once a synagogue. Performances of "Binlids," alas, end on the 23rd of this month. A trip to Norfolk Street is strongly recommended. — Joseph Hurley

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