The theater has always been a place for exploring the sorrow of families, from Oedipus to Hamlet to Willy Loman. It takes artistry, however, to make an entertaining evening out of other people's suffering.
Brokentalkers' Have I No Mouth, created, written, and directed by Irish playwright and actor Feidlim Cannon, is a multimedia show that is also a therapy session (a literal one) for him and his non-actor mother, Ann Cannon, who appears with him onstage. In this respect, Have I No Mouth, playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, would seemingly be an excellent means of healing the pain they have experienced after losing two loved ones. For the audience, however, it's not quite as restorative.
Feidlim begins the show with a homemade video comprising several scenes of a glass of Guinness, the famous Irish stout and his father Sean's favorite drink, in various locations. Feidlim means this video to be a tribute to his father and admits that the video is not very good. You may find yourself wondering nervously if that statement presages what's to come.
The rest of the show is made up of various psychotherapeutic exercises, conversations, reenactments, and more videos that relate the Cannon family's history and tragic losses. We meet Ann, who immediately charms with her honest portrayal of herself and obvious love for her son, as she points out several items dispersed around the stage that have special significance for her, including a doll in a cardboard box. This symbol of her deceased infant son distresses Feidlim and initiates the first of several conversations between them. Real-life psychotherapist Erich Keller sits nearby and coaxes Feidlim and Ann to discuss their feelings, but their conversations often drone on, becoming repetitive back-and-forths, making it feel a bit like listening to multiple cell phone conversations on a crowded train.
Feidlim uses other "techniques" for getting to the root of both his anger over his father's death, caused by an ill-advised operation, and his mother's sadness over her infant son's. He reads his mother's recollection of his brother's death while therapist Erich sprinkles artificial snowflakes over Ann's head and she meditates Reiki-style. A similar exercise will take place later with the snow falling on Feidlim as he interrogates his mother about why it took so long for him to learn about his father's death.
There are other exercises that we see carried out, such as Feidlim wrestling with his father (Erich with his head wrapped with gauze) and a reenactment of a Christmas gathering at which Feidlim's father promises his sons that he will never die, despite Ann's vehement disapproval of his lie. But whether these techniques will work to help them heal is anyone's guess. Judging from Feidlim's frenetic dance finale, which goes on for an extremely long time, he hasn't come as far as his mother.
Then there's the balloons. At one point, psychotherapist Erich asks us to blow our anger into the balloons that we were given upon entering the theater. The point is to release the anger from the balloon gently rather than popping them in a violent, noisy bang. Most in the audience did so, making for a hilariously loud squealing of escaping air that filled the theater. It's hard to know if the ensuing laughter was the intended reaction. Whatever the case, the balloon segment deflates into a limp gimmick.
In the end, Have I No Mouth feels more like a workshop piece than a finished product. There's potential here, but you have to bake the cake before you can frost it. This is not to diminish the importance of Feidlim and his mother coming to terms with their anger and hurt in this production. It requires enormous courage to take ownership of your grief and try to heal yourself in a private setting, much less in a public forum. And doubtless there are some who will come away from Have I No Mouth with the courage to speak about their own hidden hurt, but those looking for a polished theatrical experience will likely find catharsis elsewhere.