On paper, Pondling is a very accessible piece of theater. The one-woman show – written and performed by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, directed by Paul Meade, and being presented at 59E59 Theaters as a part of Origin's 1st Irish Festival 2015 – is about Madeleine, a young teenage girl in love. She lives on a farm in the Irish countryside, she loves swans and befriends chickens, and she's in love with an older boy at school named Johnno Boyle O’Connor. More than accessible, Madeleine’s tale has the ingredients of relatability for anyone who went through the throes of unrequited teenage love.
But Pondling is too strange to be entirely relatable. And this is because Madeleine is not your average girl. She befriends chickens, but she delights in the imagined power she holds over them and has no qualms about killing them for show. She's a modest farm girl, but she takes pleasure in poisoning cattle. And she has an innocent crush on Johnno, but it quickly becomes warped and obsessive.
The primary reason for Pondling’s hype and accolades (it won a 2014 Edinburgh Fringe First award and the Stewart Parker Award for new writing in Ireland) is Hulme-Beaman’s performance. To her writing credit, the character and the language of the play allow Hulme-Beaman plenty of emotional territory to navigate. Her ability to shift between comedic and genuinely scary makes every moment compelling. At first, the audience laughter is easy, sincere and consistent. But not long into the performance, the laughter is more ambivalent. The more we learn about Madeleine's actions and perspective, the more it feels like she might punish us for being so amused by her misadventures.
There are a number of different productions in the 2015 1st Irish Festival, and they come from all over the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the diaspora in New York. It’s difficult to imagine any of them are as enthralling as Pondling. The content of the play is not necessarily evidence of the magic of the thing, but Hulme-Beaman’s gift for performance makes Pondling’s eighty minutes pass in what feels like a few short moments.