March 6, 2007

Grave humor hits the mark in Carthaginians

Fourth-year Phoebe Duncan first encountered the script for Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians during a study-abroad program at Trinity College in Dublin. She read it in a class on Irish theater. It stuck out from the other plays she read as not only powerful but easyto understand for even someone with no knowledge of Irish history.

“It haunted me for the next two months,” Duncan said.

“Haunted” is the right word for Carthaginians. The characters live in a graveyard, waiting for the dead to rise. The play is set in Derry, Northern Ireland 10 years after the Bloody Sunday massacre, and each of its characters is haunted in his or her own way by the events surrounding that day and other personal tragedies. One woman sits constantly by her daughter’s grave, knitting clothes in preparation for the dead girl’s return. Others in the group have turned to drugs, gone mad, or simply given up speech altogether. The play focuses on how they manage to survive individually and as a group in the shadow of overwhelming death and sorrow.

Despite its somber subject and the tragic history of its characters, Carthaginians is full of biting and ironic humor. There are almost as many moments of clever comedy as disturbing tragedy, and the close juxtaposition of the play’s comic and tragic elements magnifies the effectiveness of each. A high point of the play is when Dido (Stephen Kim), the sharp-tongued, flamboyantly homosexual friend of the group who brings food and supplies to the graveyard, forces the group to act out a play he has written about the bloody conflicts in Northern Ireland. The result is a hysterical farce about the violence and hypocrisy that surrounds the characters, who all end up laughing at the end even as they each declare the play to be “shite.”

Carthaginians is full of this kind of story-within-a-story exposition. It deals with how characters manage to talk about things that are extremely painful, things that they might find unbearable to address directly. And yet, they all feel the need to communicate, often encoding their true feelings in songs, jokes, or riddles, the meanings of which are only revealed much later. In finally managing to share their thoughts and feelings with each other, the characters are able to hold each other up and perhaps even to begin to heal. Like its characters, the play withholds information—at first it is enigmatic and riddled with symbolism, but the true situation gradually becomes clear.

Far from being shite, Carthaginians paints a vivid and moving picture of people overcoming grief, both personal and shared. Although the context of the play is very Irish, the themes are universal. Together, the characters have been through a terrible tragedy in the midst of senseless conflict. Individually, they all have their own problems to come to terms with. They all must find a way to help each other and themselves in order to move on.

“It’s the sense that no matter what happens, we can move on, and we can help each other,” Duncan said of her goals for the play. Not only does it successfully communicate its theme, it does what only the best plays can do, which is to convincingly take the audience through the range of emotions from bitter catharsis to uncontrollable laughter.

Carthaginians runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Reynolds Club’s First Floor Theater.