By Alex Miller
“Swansong,” in which André de Vanny portrays Austin “Occi” Byrne, is the story and the performance of a lifetime.
“Agnes, where are you?” Occi tosses food into the air, searching for an unseen creature. His Irish accent is thick; he is from a county called Leitrim. Two birds squawk and peck at each other. “Hey, hey…behave, you two! Behave!” After he eventually finds his favorite swan, he tells us how his anger issues began, and how trauma changed his world forever.
“They were going in barrels down the hill,” he says, shrugging. “I realized I didn’t want to do it after I was inside the barrel. Bu it was too late. I pushed my back against the top and my hands and knees against the bottom. It didn’t matter. I was bloody all over and lost consciousness.”
His flashes of explosive anger become bloodier over time. He beats up a guy for calling him a name. A name he won’t repeat. He throttles a kid who lied to him about how much money he had in his pockets. He tears into a woman at a government office because his mother’s pension was cut in half once he became an adult. This leads to his stay in “the Leitrim Hotel,” the local mental hospital.
At the hospital, he meets the one person, besides his mother, who will have the greatest claim on his heart: Mary, a victim of depression. He folds freshly‑laundered sheets that had previously been soiled by the most tortured inhabitants of the hotel. But he doesn’t care because he and Mary sweetly kissed each time they “brought the corners of the sheets in for a fold.”
Mr. de Vanny’s command of the stage is stunning. He embodies a character many of us recognize, but have observed only from afar, ashamed or saddened by how little help we, or the state, could provide to him and his victims. Mr. de Vanny is small, but packs a wallop. I can absolutely see him winning an Academy Award one day—he’s that kind of talented. Occi’s childish jerks and poses, the way he works up a sweat explaining what he was thinking when he strangled the life out of a man with whom he worked on a fishing vessel, and the real tears he sheds – all this attests to the talents of a young actor who will continue to go places.
Mr. de Vanny serves another purpose, too: he brings attention to people afflicted with mental illness. He makes us believe that Occi is more than just a “psycho”; he is a human being with atypical wiring who has been failed by his country. Mr. de Vanny is unstoppable, and nowhere near his own swan song. Keep an eye out for him. And see this 80‑minute production, because it’s one for the ages.
Performed by Andre de Vanny
Nov. 6 & 8 at 9pm
Director: Greg Carroll
Playwright: Conor McDermottroe
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.