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Review: A Closet Case, a Rent Boy, and a Murderess Walk Into an Opera in Trade/Mary Motorhead

The double feature by Emma and Mark O'Halloran performs as part of the Prototype Festival of new opera.

Naomi Louisa O'Connell stars in Emma and Mark O'Halloran's Mary Motorhead, directed by Tom Creed, for Prototype at Abrons Arts Center.
(© Maria Baranova)

By several metrics, Ireland is one of the richest counties in the world. According to The Economist, the GDP per head in the republic is now $114,370, vastly above that of the United States ($76,190). True, this number is wildly distorted by corporate tax inversion, in which multinationals (many originating in the US) claim legal headquarters in Ireland to take advantage of that country's favorable tax regime. But can an island awash in foreign capital ever maintain the social and economic deprivation from which so much of its august literary tradition springs?

Trade/Mary Motorhead, a double bill of operas by Irish composer Emma O'Halloran (with libretti by her uncle, Mark O'Halloran) suggests that it can and will. The two one-act operas, both focusing on people left behind in the shiny new global Éire, are now being presented at Abrons Arts Center as part of the Prototype Festival. Under the deft direction of Tom Creed and pristine music direction of Elaine Kelly, both operas receive a first-class mounting — which doesn't necessarily mean first-class results.

First up is Mary Motorhead, an operatic monologue told from the perspective of Mary (Naomi Louisa O'Connell), a prisoner. We know this from the institutional blue paint on the wall (set by Jim Findlay) and her matching uniform, which oddly covers pleather pants and a T-shirt that reads "motörhead" (Montana Levi Blanco's costumes and Christopher Kuhl's lighting are our first hint that the world we are viewing exists partly in our protagonist's imagination).

Naomi Louisa O'Connell stars in Emma and Mark O'Halloran's Mary Motorhead, directed by Tom Creed, for Prototype at Abrons Arts Center.
(© Maria Baranova)

She recounts her sad life: dropping out of a school where the nuns taught her "fuck all" to work in a factory; going out drinking and dancing with her best girlfriend, until that friend moved abroad with a man; meeting her own man, whose casual disregard eventually led her to stab him in the head. It's the kind of working-class confession you might encounter downstairs at the Irish Rep, except it is entirely conveyed through a chilling mezzo-soprano voice.

O'Connell's performance is the most impressive aspect of Mary Motorhead, lending character and specificity to a libretto that lacks both. Mark O'Halloran's story is generically gritty and seems too eager to shock (which is why it doesn't). Emma O'Halloran's score offers a few more surprises (a passage underscored by an industrial dance beat is particularly arresting), but we can all see where it's going. Yet O'Connell keeps us on the edge of our seats with a performance that feels powerful and a little bit dangerous. Even the way she supports her breath feels menacing as she sucks in violently through her nose. Unfortunately, there's just so much she can do with the impoverished material.

Marc Kudisch and Kyle Bielfield star in Emma and Mark O'Halloran's Trade, directed by Tom Creed, for Prototype at Abrons Arts Center.
(© Maria Baranova)

The stronger half of the evening is Trade, which takes place in a no-frills hotel room with piss-yellow walls (another bold paint choice by Findlay). That's where a young male prostitute (Kyle Bielfield) waits impatiently for his older client (Broadway star Marc Kudisch) to finish brushing his teeth. Both men are officially straight — working-class fathers in heterosexual relationships, mystified by and resentful of the fancy gays they see on television. The older man is a victim of global Ireland: He and several other dockworkers have been laid off by representatives of the Scandinavian parent company — Viking raiders in Brioni suits. And he has recently been in a fist fight, as evidenced by the bruise on his face and blood on his shirt. He uses his purchased time as a kind of therapy, pouring his anxiety out in a way that can only ever be done in the company of a relative stranger with no mutuals. The younger man listens attentively and wonders if they'll ever get down to business…and if he'll ever get paid.

Mark O'Halloran's libretto is precise and moving, presenting a truthful story without digressing into any it-gets-better moralizing. Emma O'Halloran's score, full of string tremolos and fluttering woodwinds, captures the sublime precoital tension that can exist between two men. Alex Dowling's electronic sound design enhances the score, simulating that moment when the alcohol hits your blood stream.

Kyle Bielfield stars in Emma and Mark O'Halloran's Trade, directed by Tom Creed, for Prototype at Abrons Arts Center.
(© Maria Baranova)

The vocal parts also convey the complexity of these characters: While Bielfield is often made to incant a guarded "What" (not the kind of open vowel every singer pines for), he magnificently soars into the countertenor stratosphere when singing the name of his daughter, Chloe. Bielfield proves he has the range, both as a singer and actor, when he holds back tears and puffs up his chest as he prepares for a fight. Blanco costumes him in a full Nike track suit topped by a baseball cap, the essential accessory for looking more butch than you actually are.

Kudisch delivers a thrilling and unpredictable performance as a man who longs to be something different, but sees all of the exit ramps of his current trajectory in the rearview mirror. A subtle softness shimmers through his muscular and resonant baritone, telling the story of a father and provider who has never had the opportunity to be anything different, unless he pays for it. It's riveting stuff, made even better by stellar performances.

That makes Trade/Mary Motorhead an event worth catching (the final performance is January 14). It's a fascinating peek under the foundations of global marketplace, which has delivered so much material prosperity yet leaves so many souls emaciated.

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