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Stage Review

A spellbinding vision of devilry

‘Terminus’ spins all-too-human tales of brutality

Olwen Fouéré in Abbey Theatre's 'Terminus' at the Paramount Mainstage. Olwen Fouéré in Abbey Theatre's "Terminus" at the Paramount Mainstage. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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If Hieronymus Bosch were alive today and decided to turn his hand to playwriting rather than painting, he might concoct a nightmarish vision akin to that of Mark O’Rowe’s “Terminus.’’

In a mesmerizing Abbey Theatre production that will be at the Paramount Mainstage through Sunday, O’Rowe takes us on an allegorical odyssey through the evil that men (and a couple of women) do. “Terminus’’ is extraordinarily bleak yet streaked with redemptive moments, and even some flashes of humor.

The Paramount presentation of “Terminus’’ is the first stop on an international tour by the Abbey, Ireland’s national theater, and is the last of the three theatrical productions presented by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage as part of its “Irish Festival.’’ (The other two being Kathrine Bates’s tepid “The Color of Rose’’ and Martin McDonagh’s superb “The Cripple of Inishmaan.’’)

O’Rowe, an Irish playwright and screenwriter who is perhaps best known for “Howie the Rookie,’’ directs this one-act play. It consists of intertwining monologues by three characters whose names are never given. (They are identified in the program only as A, B, and C.)

The stories they tell are of inhuman, or maybe all-too-human, brutality.

The first to speak is a middle-aged woman, played by Olwen Fouéré, who is estranged from her daughter and beset by regret. She describes how, as part of what appears to be a quest for atonement, she risked her life to save a pregnant girl from a grisly ordeal at the hands of a terrifying (unseen) figure named Celine.

The next character we hear from is a lonely young woman (Catherine Walker), who describes her daily life thusly: “The bus home, then the silent flat. No cat nor any kind of pet. The sofa — sit. The telly — hit the remote. Reward — the illusion of presence through voices.’’

Grasping for a chance at romance, she suffers a betrayal by her best friend whose consequences will resound throughout “Terminus,’’ and push the play into a supernatural realm.

At this point, a winged-and-hoofed demon composed of worms enters the storyline of “Terminus.’’ It sounds silly, but somehow is not .

The third to speak is a serial killer (Declan Conlon), who has sold his soul to the devil to gain a beautiful singing voice, only to find himself thwarted because he overlooked a crucial detail.

The connections among these three characters are revealed slowly and ingeniously, with a cumulative emotional power that takes a spectator by surprise.

O’Rowe stages “Terminus’’ with stark simplicity. Except for a spotlight on each character when it is his or her turn to speak, the stage is shrouded in darkness. Jon Bausor’s set features large mirrored shards that add to the sense of disorientation.

The playwright opted to write his characters’ monologues in rhyme, an approach that occasionally leads to some awkward passages, e.g., “The tone she took when, in a book, marking her page, sparking my rage, I discovered a note in which was written that a certain man was smitten, infatuated, and glad the feeling was reciprocated.’’

But more often in “Terminus’’ O’Rowe deploys his considerable imagination and gifts of expression to cast a near-hypnotic spell.

The strong-featured Fouéré plays the middle-aged woman with a steely demeanor that makes the moments when she crumbles all the more moving.

Conlon maintains a deft balance as the serial killer, suggesting a chilling reasonableness, rather than slipping into wild-eyed mannerisms.

As the young woman, Walker is heartbreaking in her yearning, her devastation, and in her final joy when she finds love in a very unexpected place.

It was a century ago, in September 1911, that the Abbey Theatre, cofounded by William Butler Yeats, launched its first American tour with a performance in the Hub of John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.’’

I’m not saying “Terminus’’ is destined for classic status. But now, as then, Boston theatergoers would be ill-advised to miss a provocative offering by a talented Irish dramatist.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

TERMINUS Written and directed

by Mark O’Rowe

Sets and costumes, Jon Bausor. Lights, Philip Gladwell. Sound, Philip Stewart.

Production by Abbey Theatre, presented by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, at Paramount Mainstage. Through Sunday. Tickets $25-$79, 617-824-8000, www.artsemerson.org.