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- Rachel Beauregard (left) and Maya Jackson (right) (Photo: Joshua Yospyn/TBD)
The Uline Arena, which is Swampoodle's subject and greatest asset, is also one of its biggest problems. It is, as playwright Tom Swift promised, a dazzling space, and once the curtains are pulled back to let the audience in, the first glance of that startling emptiness feels like a sightseeing trip through some ruins. Because thats what the Uline and Swampoodle are, really – the carcass of a historic arena, placed atop the remains of a once-vibrant ethnic neighborhood. Swift, The Performance Corporation and Solas Nua reanimate this space temporarily, but like so many sequels, reprisals or reunion tours, the Uline's second act isn't quite cutting it, despite the heroic efforts of the artists working to give it a final chance in the lights.
Swampoodle is the former Irish neighborhood that was razed to build Union Station, and the Uline is the historic arena where the Beatles played their first American concert. It hosted other events, as well – political rallies, a Malcolm X speech attended by members of the American Nazi Party, the Ice Capades, the circus, boxing matches, inaugural balls, and ice hockey. It is now a parking garage, having spent several years as a trash sorting station. It's the rawest space for Solas Nua to use in a season of unorthodox venues for its performances.
Swift, an Irish playwright commissioned by Solas Nua, tells the story of the neighborhood and the arena utilizing all of the different performance styles that have occupied the space. You'll see song and dance numbers addressing immigration and poverty, a faux-synchronized swimming performance about the Nazis, and a boxing match between Irish and Italian immigrants, duking it out over which laborers had a greater hand in building D.C. But in between these, Swift and director Jo Mangan introduce us to the ghosts of the Uline, led by janitor Michael John Casey. Unfortunately, they spend entirely too much time bickering over whose show they'll be performing, and what form that show will take. It has a meaning at the end of the show, when the ghosts come together with fanfare, but until then, it distracts from the history of the place.
But you probably won't hear most of that fighting, to be honest. As beautiful as the ruins of the building are, the Uline is an acoustically impossible space. Much of the dialogue of the show is completely inaudible due to the echoing of the arena, and the whispering of the crowd. Since the space is so rough, there are no seats for the performance – the audience clusters in the middle of the arena, and walks towards different areas of the venue as characters pop up throughout. But if you get caught in the back of the crowd during a particular segment, forget it – you won't be able to hear a word of the dialogue.
Fortunately, there's plenty to take in if you look around you while you tune out the echoey din. The space is lit beautifully by Marianne Meadows, who often chooses to keep us waiting in anticipation in the darkness, turning every which way to figure out where the next performer will appear, before shining a spotlight into an unexpected nook of the arena (for which we should also credit production designer Ciaran Bagnall). Meadows also highlights some of the few remnants of the Uline's showbiz career – like the flaking paint of a sign to an old men's restroom. And costume designer Niamh Lunny's work – perhaps the most magnificent example of which is Rachel Beauregard's feathers-and-tulle vaudeville dance costume – is both whimsical and decadent.
I hope that Swampoodle is the beginning of a trend: More experimentation, more raw spaces, more theater that is deeply personal to D.C. The audience was hungry for this kind of a show – one that would not just be watched, but experienced. And hopefully, next time, heard.