In sifting through dozens of theater choices, a one-man performance portraying four octogenarians unceremoniously dumped into old-age homes might not, at least for this theater lover, be a top priority. Then add that this play Forgotten is a mixture of Irish tale-spinning, kabuki dance and comedy, and one may become even more dubious.
However, after reading the opening paragraphs of reviews and profiles of performer-creator Pat Kinevane, doubts quickly transform into fascination. The actor from the Republic of Ireland has been creating solo work for eight years and has become an international phenomenon. This West Coast premiere of Forgotten at the Odyssey Theatre is presented in conjunction with Imagine Ireland: a Year of Irish Arts in America.
Critics who have experienced Forgotten over its last six years of international touring comment on its inexplicable power. The story follows two women and two men trapped first in old age and then in institutions they deem “geriatric asylums.” The concept of the play came to Kinevane as he began to sense his own aging process (he’s now 44) and looked around at his elders. “I was raised, as were most Irish, to have a huge respect for the elders in society,” explains the performer, in a telephone interview from his home in the Republic of Ireland. “ When I see them being marginalized and pushed to the edges of society, it just saddens me.Â I suppose that was my impetus to say something about it.”
Kinevane found a way to protest the treatment of elders, not in a political or sociological fashion, but in a highly personal approach. He understands himself well and sees a blessing and a curse in his ability to feel the emotions of others. “Ever since I have been a writer and performer, I was always extremely affected by things around me.Â Always so observant. Even as a child when I would see something that the other kids wouldn’t care about, it would touch me ““ I suppose I am naturally over-empathic.”
The concept of looking at society through the eyes of elder Irish folk and expressing it in classical storytelling provides enormous emotional potential. But how does traditional Japanese movement-based theater fit into the performance? “I was always fascinated by the spectacle of dance and dance theater,” he explains, “Particularly Asian theater. I always found it had this extraordinary aesthetic of its own that we don’t really have in western theater. That sense of expression through the body.Â Irish drama is wonderful, but it is the antithesis of movement-based theater. We pride ourselves in our really rich texts and the use of language and striving for the perfect structure of a piece. Using dance to show a story of desperation is more common in eastern drama.”
Although he fell in love with Asian dance theater movement and studied the varied forms, he is hardly slavishly devoted to formal accuracy. “No! You can borrow bits and build up your own style of movement.Â It really is different than actual Kabuki.Â Early on I would have dabbled in every sort of dance and I really concentrated on pantomime. I kind of specialized in mime. But I didn’t do pure mime either. It gave me the license to healthily kind of bastardize all forms of dance and movement.”
Through Forgotten and his one-man performance Silent (which won two major awards at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe –Â the Scotsman Fringe First and the Herald Angel) Kinevane has created a unique style that is based purely on his own theatrical taste. “I suppose I create something I would like to go see myself.Â I like going to the theater and I like being entertained fully through all my senses.Â I get very bored if it is just an aural experience.Â My type is highly visual with a rich text with as much entertainment value as possible and to use plenty of strength.Â If you can move, move!Â If you can sing, sing! If you have four arms, use all four! I like being challenged. I like to be transported.”
Though the play is filled with dance, music and Irish-style yarns, are there deep moments of realism within the characters? “Absolutely and they have very rich stories to tell.Â In the tradition of Irish storytelling, they kind of revel in that.Â They get very close and connected and build up a personal relationship with the audience.Â The visual starts the piece, then we’re drawn into the world of the character.”
An interesting common theme in several reviews of Forgotten is particular praise for Kinevane’s portrayal of the two female characters Dora, who was once an upper-class bon vivant, and Flor, a former luckless maid. The performer is pleased with the kudos. “One of the reasons I went down the Kabuki route was because it gave me the license to play two female characters. In that style of the theater, it is acceptable and not a joke.Â It works ““ this remarkable female energy around them is brought out in the piece.Â It wouldn’t stand out as much if a woman was acting, but it stands out because a man is playing the women. People listen to it with a different ear.”
The special art of playing female notwithstanding, he is equally happy playing all four characters. “They are inspired by people in my life. They are fictitious but inspired by sort of iconic and elder figures in communities I have lived in.Â I suppose there are stereotypical moments as well, but I try to cover as many facets as I can in four characters.Â The facets of aging: concerns, joys, celebration and despair.” Though there is a great sense of the desperation of aging, Kinevane wants to make it clear that the play is far from a dreary tale of sadness.Â “I love to laugh. Even when I am workin’, I just have to laugh.Â I always said I wasn’t going to do this solo route unless it was going to be great fun.Â In the tapestry of things we have to put in laughs.Â The humor here is really the characters letting off steam. Every one of them is intrinsically funny ““ brilliant senses of humor.”
To help keep the balance of humor and drama and to keep him honest, Kinevane has developed a strong relationship with director Jim Culleton, artistic director of Fishamble,Â a Dublin theater company that was named for the street that was the site of the first theater to promote the production of new Irish work, in 1784.
Kinevane recalls his meeting with Culleton, “It was my idea to begin with, and I went to Jim and said, “˜I want to create something that I had never seen before.Â That I hope will transport people.’Â He’s a brilliant director in every way, and more in particular he is an extraordinary person because he allows the performer freedom to make mistakes.Â I felt in the past when I started as a young man in the industry that there was a lot of intimidation when it comes to being an actor on the rehearsal floor. He [has] developed a lot of new plays with Irish writers, so he has a very astute and trained ear.Â He is almost like a dramaturg, but doesn’t think of himself as that ““ he just has an instinctive ear for excess as well as for too little.”
A denizen of rural County Cork in the Republic of Ireland, Kinevane grew up seeing little in the way of fine arts. “I come from the heart of the rural countryside.Â I would have just drama in the local community hall from an amateur point of view until I was 21, then I got an opportunity to work professionally and I took it.Â Just came out of the blue.Â I was very lucky.Â Really luck in the right place and the right time.”Â Kinevane recalls his sudden leap into success on stage and film. “I had a very wonderful career. Then about eight years ago I stepped away from the big production houses because I just needed a break ““ needed to find my own way.”
These eight years of creativity led to the creation of his solo style and have made him a hit on the touring circuit of international festivals. “A lot has to do with the fact I have a beautiful little boy who is 11 now.Â I feel it is easier to go away now.Â When he was an infant, I don’t think this kind of traveling would have suited me as much.Â I love the travel and I love meeting people.Â I love seeing new places.Â We are only on the planet for a good short time.”
No matter where he travels, he always longs for Christmas in Killarney. “Growing upÂ I didn’t understand what Ireland had because I was too close to it.Â Then I went to Australia for six months. When I came back to Ireland I realized what I was missing: a palpable sense of race and community.Â A sense of well-being.Â I think people feel that when they come to Ireland.Â It certainly has to do with the people.Â We wear our hearts on our sleeves.Â We don’t pretend.Â We try to get on as best we can with everybody.Â There is a lot of love in the Irish people.”
He also misses the Irish theater when he is away.Â “Our theater is constantly evolving.Â It is very beautiful ““ very meticulous. People want to produce high quality work for themselves — and because they are aware they are representing their country.Â It surprises me how crazy we are here, how free-thinking we are in the Republic. There is a lot of conservatism in the country, yet we are free to think and say what we want.Â I would be one of the crazy people.”
Forgotten, presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Opens Nov. 17. Plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through Dec. 4. Tickets: $25-$30. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda, Los Angeles. 310-477-2055 x2, www.odysseytheatre.com.
***All Forgotten production photos by Fishamble: The New Play Company