Theater review: ‘Swampoodle’ at Uline Arena

You’ve heard of eager kids putting on a show in a barn? Try the Uline Arena on for size.

The old concrete cavern, known for a time as the Washington Coliseum and venerated as the spot where the Beatles played just days after their “Ed Sullivan” debut, is now a humongous hollowed-out shell; it could seat around 9,000, if only there were seats. This arena is the set and the story of “Swampoodle,” the one-week-only piece by the District’s edgy Irish troupe Solas Nua in cahoots with the Performance Corporation, a site-specific troupe from County Kildare, Ireland.

The title comes from the name of the Irish neighborhood that popped up and then was overbuilt around Tiber Creek just north of Capitol Hill. And yes, “Swampoodle” is a kind of a history lesson — a ramshackle reconstruction of the Irish immigrant/D.C.-sports-and-show-biz past on the Uline’s not-so-hallowed ground.

“If a show should occur,” cast members comically declare throughout the deliberately disjointed performance, for they bicker all the time about their theatrical and historical roles. Who among them, for example, should play Malcolm X, who once spoke at Uline — an Irish guy, or a black woman? As they debate, women in bathing suits and men with snorkels and flippers move like synchronized swimmers, for aquatic events were held here once upon a time.

And ice capades, and boxing ­matches, and dances, and high cultural events. “Swampoodle” goes “Follies” — the fabled 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical now at the Kennedy Center — one better for showing ghosts haunting a decrepit hall. Here actors briefly reincarnate all kinds of acts and neighborhood folk, with archival video projections (Beatles, boxers, etc.) sometimes covering a wall and half of the arched ceiling.

The show features mostly local actors, many of whom went to Ireland to help devise it, and it’s directed and largely designed by Performance Corporation personnel. The project sprawls all over the Uline: Actors are here, then there, and the crowd — capped at 200 — migrates like commuters on the arena floor (with the yellow lines of parking spaces underfoot; it’s a parking lot by day). The cast members sometimes whizz around the periphery like sheepdogs as they sprint from scene to scene and debate what the story should be.

“There is no story!” grouses a tough old janitor toting a broom on his shoulder.

It’s true, and though there’s a script by Tom Swift, sometimes there’s no hope of making out what the actors are saying, because of the echoes of their amplified voices. The arena is just north of Union Station and just east of the train tracks, so the odd train rumbling by adds atmosphere but further complicates acoustics.

The echo is occasionally a plus, though. When a solo trumpeter sends gorgeous, long, resounding notes through the hall, for a while it sounds like they’ll never fade out. And when a slow, haunting refrain of “We’re all here” swells out of the near-dark as the actors glide randomly through the crowd, the sound is wonderfully spooky. You can’t say director Jo Mangan and her gang don’t work this enormous, musty, 70-year-old room, even if their show doesn’t always command it.

If you want to hear every word or if you’re in no mood to be on your feet for the 80-minute running time (longer, waiting to get in), forget it. It’s not a great performance. But as the cast ironically chirps “Enjoy the show!” and sends you back into the street, “Swampoodle” will have opened your eyes to a significant old slice of Washington. Not bad, that.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Swampoodle

by Tom Swift. Directed by Jo Mangan. Production design, Ciaran Bagnall; costumes, Niamh Lunny; lights, Marianne Meadows. With Clare Barrett, Rachel Beauregard, Michael John Casey, Chris Dinolfo, Judith Ingber, Maya Jackson, Jason McCool, Adrienne Nelson, Rosemary Regan, Stephanie Roswell, Karl Quinn and Anastasia Wilson. About 80 minutes. Through Sunday at the Uline Arena, Third and M streets NE. Call 800-494-8497 or visit swampoodledc.com.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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