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Grisly scenes, in the mind’s eye

Irish playwright’s ‘Terminus’ offers unique, dark tale

From left: Declan Conlon, Catherine Walker, and Olwen Fouéré star in “Terminus,’’ a play whose lines are densely packed with rhyme. From left: Declan Conlon, Catherine Walker, and Olwen Fouéré star in “Terminus,’’ a play whose lines are densely packed with rhyme. (Ros Kavanagh)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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Fingernails pierce an eyeball and drain it of fluid. A knife slices into a woman while she’s having sex. A body implodes beneath the tires of a truck. In Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s “Terminus,’’ all of these things happen, but not one of them happens onstage. They occur instead in the minds of the audience, the images planted there by the trio of interwoven monologues that make up the piece.

To O’Rowe, there’s an obvious theatrical appeal to a world created entirely through words spoken directly to the audience, without a fourth wall.

“The monologue is somewhere in the middle of theater, stand-up, and the novel,’’ he explained by phone from Dublin. “You can’t look away, because everything that’s said is already inside your head.’’

O’Rowe, 40, is little-known in this country, but the Abbey Theatre is likely to change that with its seven-city US tour of “Terminus,’’ which begins Tuesday at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theatre and wends its way to Middlebury, Vt., for a single performance March 12.

Set in and around Dublin, where it premiered at the Abbey in 2007, “Terminus’’ tells the stories of an estranged mother and daughter and a murderous male psychopath who, as O’Rowe put it, “literally doesn’t have a soul.’’ In its form, and in its penchant for physical brutality and shady characters, it recalls the play with which O’Rowe made his well-received American debut a decade ago: “Howie the Rookie,’’ a darkly comic two-hander peopled with thugs and lowlifes given to spectacular fits of savagery.

“I feel like ‘Howie the Rookie’ and even ‘Terminus,’ they’re sort of like ‘Terminator’ movies, but with words,’’ said Mark Russell, who brought both plays to New York for their US premieres, the first in 2001 at Performance Space 122, the second in 2008 at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival, which he produces.

“If you were to do it in a cinema,’’ Russell said, “you would have, you know, car chases and cars blowing up, and you can kind of see these things when you’re seeing ‘Terminus,’ when you’re listening to ‘Terminus.’ And I don’t know of another playwright that does that quite that way.’’

But Arnold Schwarzenegger never had to face the challenge O’Rowe sets for actors in “Terminus.’’ The story they tell is written in verse, densely packed with rhyme that they must speak in a way that sounds like their natural language.

Such as: “So,’’ the psychopath says, recalling the contract by which he sold his soul to the devil, “I signed it, blinded by my bind to the fine print, a misjudgement that’s fairly frequent, I’ve heard since, in dealing with the Dark Prince.’’

Crafting the play that way, O’Rowe said, wasn’t his original plan, but he changed tactics about a quarter of a page into the script. “I think I may have rhymed something kind of by mistake,’’ he said. Then he did it again, deliberately.

Writing in verse felt experimental, he said, and led to him sitting in cafés talking to himself, running through the alphabet in search of rhymes for various words. Substantial though the obstacle he’d placed in his own path was, it didn’t slow him down as much as the intricacies of plot sometimes have.

Occasionally, he said, the rhymes even suggested small turns in the story, such as what happens to one of his characters between death and rebirth. Rhyming “dream’’ with “stream’’ prompted O’Rowe to wipe clean the character’s memory in a way that seems to allude to the Lethe, the mythical river in Hades whose water made the dead forget the lives they’d lived. That classical echo is unintentional.

“I have very, very, very little knowledge of the Greeks. Maybe there’s some genetically encoded,’’ O’Rowe said, adding that he’d merely been trying to get from one plot point to the next. “You just follow a logical-ish train of thought.’’

Verse wasn’t the only new territory O’Rowe confronted with “Terminus.’’ He is also the Abbey production’s director, a first for him that was born of years of frustration and dissatisfaction with the rehearsal process for other plays he’d written.

“I got tired of sitting in the rehearsal room and watching everybody else have all the fun. I got tired of sitting in the rehearsal room and not being paid,’’ he said.

He also felt powerless, and weary of giving “100 notes a day’’ to directors.

“It’s the writer’s job to sit in the rehearsal room and feel threatened,’’ he said, quickly volunteering that this might be a slightly neurotic take on the situation. “But you sit in the room and you resent the fact that other people are doing your play, and they’re getting it wrong.’’

Directing, he said, taught him that “the script is only about 30 percent of a performance,’’ and that the actors are often ahead of him in understanding who their characters are. He also learned how to listen to the director part of himself when the script needed revision.

“But, you know, there wasn’t much wrong with it to begin with,’’ he said, laughing.

Perfectly affable in discussing such topics as verse and directing, O’Rowe did not care to be asked about the use of violence in his plays. In response, he was first dismissive (“I wouldn’t read too much into the violence’’), then blithe (“A story is a story, whether it’s violent or not’’), then prickly. “I’m not working out any psychological problems,’’ he said, though it hadn’t been suggested that he was.

“I’ve had several interviews where people have focused and focused and focused on the violence, this being one of them,’’ said O’Rowe, clearly annoyed by the American interest in a topic that “would never come up’’ in Ireland.

“The truest thing I can say is I’m indulging my inner 16-year-old, who loves films about blowing [stuff] up,’’ he finally said, exasperated.

Under the Radar’s Russell, however, seemed to understand the American curiosity about violence.

“It permeates our culture, but we’re in denial,’’ he said. “I think in Ireland, they love a good story, and you need high stakes to make a good story, and high stakes result in violence often. And [O’Rowe is] not afraid of letting those images out.’’

At the Public, Russell said, the brutality of the play was an issue for some theatergoers.

“Audiences sometimes, when we first showed it in New York, were divided,’’ he said, “because some people, those images got in their heads. They were disturbed. And others, of course, loved it as an amazing ride.’’

Russell, who said he hates scary movies but delights in shoot-’em-ups, is an O’Rowe admirer and clearly enjoyed the ride that “Terminus’’ is.

“It’s so amazing to see it done with just language and barely any movement: very simple, simple stagecraft. That is what makes it poetry, which makes it so powerful, and lifts it above just a scandalous Nic Cage movie,’’ Russell said. He laughed and added, “Though Nic Cage should really consider starring in ‘Terminus.’ ’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

TERMINUS Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre, Tuesday through Feb. 13. Tickets: $25-$79. 617-824-8000, www.artsemerson.org

Presented by Mahaney Center for the Arts at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt., March 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $24. 802-443-6433, www.middlebury.edu/arts/boxoffice