Road to Nowhere
staged by No Theatre
Dublin: O’Reilly Theatre October 10-14, 2007 Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Touring: Angers and Strasbourg, France through October.
“Well we know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been.
And we know what we’re knowing, but we can’t say what we’ve seen.
And we’re not little children and we know what we want.
And the future is certain: give us time to work it out.”
How apt and chilling these words sound coming from the lips of the Young@Heart Chorus, a troupe of senior performers currently aged between 71 and 88. Talking Heads’ 1980s pop song becomes intertextual with issues of age and death in an immediate and immanent way here, and this from a troupe which began in 1982 and now features none of its original members, all of whom are dead. No one sitting and listening in the theatre can remain untouched, or unhumbled.
Road to Nowhere is a combination of concert show and dumbshow theatre. It presents a series of staged performances of popular rock tunes primarily from the 1960s but some beyond, as if they are being staged at a school hall or other community venue. An American flag stands idly stage left beside an old piano, and this on a smaller scale stage with its own curtain and backdrop built upon the actual stage, where sit various members of the chorus, initially with their backs to the audience as if they are attending rather than providing the show. As the show progresses, the fourth wall breaks down and the cast turn to the actual audience and perform for them. Meta-dramas still occur; bits of business involving a young janitor played by Steven M. Sanderson of the rock band Drunk Stuntmen and other reflexive asides. Each of the numbers also comes with a ‘staging concept’- no dialogue as such, just gestures and movements indicating small stories afoot amid the song - not much different from the kind of thing audiences would know from grade school shows.
The songs are an interesting mix of choices. Most have a witty new context given the manner of their presentation, including The Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated and several Beatles tracks including A Day in the Life. If you think Paint it Black is a scary song sung by a young Mick Jagger, try hearing it from the lips of an eightysomething (mind you, we won’t have long to hear it from the horse’s mouth in the same vein). Probably the most crowd-pleasing number though was the lively rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark during which Sanderson also contributes vocals and which is intercut with the Dietz/Schwartz classic of the same name.
It’s condescending to pat the backs of these seniors and say this is a good show simply because they have managed to mount it, and to some extent there may be an element of self-congratulation in the adulation shown to the performers by as ecstatic an audience as I have ever seen in the theatre. But the fact remains that this is an interesting piece of performance theatre, and each of the performers brings a great deal of character to their interpretations of the various songs. There is thought and concept behind No Theatre’s design here, and the play asks to be considered as a play, not as some kind of work release from the old folks home.
On this level certain things about the production confused me. Why, for example, do the chorus all don uniform dark grey trenchcoats after a few minutes and then wear them more or less all the way through with one or two exceptions? This oddly conforming costuming has the effect of draining the actors of personality after they have been introduced as individuals wearing significant attire.
Patricia Cady comes to the stage, for example, dressed in a police officer’s uniform, and, surely enough, this was her profession before retirement. Likewise Len Fontaine arrives in a cycling outfit and we find he was president of the Springfield Cyclonauts for more than a decade. My favourite though was Stan Goldman in a Superman T-Shirt, and this returns near the end during a rendition of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side which also sees Dora B. Morrow unveiling a vibrant red outfit oozing sexual energy. Seeing the Superman shirt made me think that Goldman would have been seven or eight years old when the Man of Steel first appeared. By that token, Superman is as much, perhaps moreso, an icon of his life as anyone else’s.
Donning the grey coats seems to send out a signal about anonymity that is at odds with what seems to be the project’s purpose overall. Also, though I understand there are simple practical considerations that mean that director Bob Climan must be close to the stage and within visible range of his cast, the effect of his visible ‘direction’ is also a little disconcerting. He even directs them on when to bow.
Nonetheless there is no denying the power of what we see here, and the show cannot but give pause to anyone sitting in the theatre, either a contemporary of the cast or much younger, to wonder what they are making of their own lives. Thoughts of life and death are invited, and as the chorus see off the show with a softly sung rendition of Dylan’s Forever Young, you really can’t help but feel both heartened and chastened.