“What’s this story actually about?” a young boy asks halfway through Faces in the Crowd. “It’s a ghost story,” replies his mother, but only to clarify later that these ghosts are neither dead nor really ghosts.
The boy’s question is a worthwhile one. I found myself asking the same thing over and over throughout Ellen McDougall’s unwieldy production at the Gate Theatre. What’s this play actually about? Is it about any one thing? Does it have to be?
Ghosts, certainly, are a part of it. Undead ghosts, to be more precise—or ghosts that live on through their words on a page, their letters in a book, their appearances on a subway platform. For the unnamed Woman at the centre of this play, a ghost of this kind is what tips the scale of her life towards a cathartic unravelling.
The Woman—played by Jimena Larraguivel with down-to-earth vigour—lives in New York and works as a translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rediscovering “foreign gems.” After an arduous search, she finds a gem that fits the bill: a Mexican poet from the 1920s named Gilbert Owen. She becomes instantly obsessed with him, noticing (making up?) strange parallels between his life and hers.
This is by no means the only narrative thread that runs through Faces in the Crowd. But it’s by far the clearest one. McDougall’s adaptation of Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s 2011 novel (translated into English by Christina MacSweeney) comes packed with an abundance of jagged characters, spectral voices, and shadowy stories. There are nagging children, an unfaithful husband, and a Chinese student. A potted plant, a fateful rooftop, and a Wendy house. These crosscurrents of the play’s expansive world are how it attempts to comment on identity—its porousness and multiplicity, its possibilities of transcendence.
Yet there are only so many cracks and chasms that a dreamy impressionism of this sort can sustain without collapsing in on itself. Like the star-gazing lamp featured in Jessica Hung Han Yun’s elegantly fitful lighting design, McDougall’s production inundates its audience with ever-shifting, ever-twinkling snippets of interest. It fails, however, to have this wild collage add up to a legible or satisfying whole—at least for anyone unfamiliar with the source text.
This wilful opacity stems in large part from the play’s kaleidoscopic nature, as part of which pithy scenes rapidly shift setting and focus without much of a transition. McDougall’s script is not shy to acknowledge its episodic flair, as when the Woman’s son says of his own writing: “I have to tell this story in short bursts—I’m short of breath.” The play, too, is short of breath, though it’s not always clear whose muffled breath we are hearing.
Four actors juggle several phantom presences. Neil D’Souza is the Woman’s husband, but she frequently asks him to read lines attributed to her boss at the publishing house, called White. Similarly, Anoushka Lucas is both a silken-voiced musician who sings occasionally, and a stand-in for some of the peripheral figures that populate the Woman’s tales. In a sprightly performance, Santiago Huertas Ruiz plays the Woman’s inquisitive, onesie-clad son, but not without doubling as a detective at some point.
So the characters multiply freely, and Bethany Wells’ rectangular, spare set gets littered with a range of odd props—including a sack of toys, an architectural model, and a slide projector. McDougall’s actors stand on, lie under, and move past the conjoined tables at the centre of the stage, attracting and repelling each other as the Woman’s stories traverse different cities, eras, and lives.
It surprises me to learn that the guiding motif of this hazy flurry comes from Ezra Pound’s gnomic poem “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.” This adaptation has a lot of faces that appear and disappear fleetingly, falling and vanishing like dried-up petals. If only it were as tight and haunting as Pound’s lines.
Faces in the Crowd is on at the Gate Theatre till 8th February. More info here.