By Lucy Komisar
Michael West’s play is a charming, stylized, fantastical imagining of a Dublin theater troop that gets caught up in the Irish independence movement over a hundred years ago. It tells the story of some actors’ efforts to found the Irish National Theatre of Ireland and the conflicts and dangers that arise because some of them are also committed to the Cause.
The play takes place in 1904, which happens to be when the iconic Abbey Theatre was founded. Perhaps commemorating that anniversary, it was first performed in Ireland in 2004. But there the comparison with that center of very political but also very naturalistic theater stops, other than as caricature. This is a pot-boiler directed with panache by Tom Reing. The mood is the style of the silents, if they had sound; there is hokey piano music (written and performed by John Lionarons). Also comic buffoonery, the absurdity of a Beckett play and a strong sense of irony.
The six actors, in commedia dell’arte white face and with fast vaudeville-style costume changes, play more than 30 characters, running behind the curtain and then popping out in front as they shift identities.They do both the narrative (story theater) and the dialogue. They often talk not to each other, but to the audience. They also create the sound effects of the action. Imagine the cacophony of people running into a line of horses. They are an excellent ensemble.
The characters, as minimal as they are, come out as very real. Among them is Eva St. John (Megan Bellwoar), a rich activist, who wants to finance the theater and is also a militant opponent of the British. Willy (Jered McLenigan), the playwright who is mounting the theater, will do anything for her support. Others in the troop are working people including a carpenter and a hotel maid (Sarah van Auken) who is in charge of the costumes but is aching to act. They all give off a sense of desperation.
The overriding theme is popular opposition to a British rule by people mired in dire poverty. And it is presented with extreme cleverness.
On a bridge looking people gathering for the arrival of the British King Edward VII, Martyn (Mike Dees), a stalwart of the theater troop, chats with a police inspector who says, Would this be a good vantage point to view the passing of the King? He replies, Is he sick? The other: I would like to follow the route His Majesty will be talking. Martyn: Be born into a wealthy family and die of gout. Or you could look out for the little blue and red flags.
Eva and Martyn meet at Grafton Street in London. They reach Trinity College. Martyn declares, It’s the King! Eva:Now, Martyn, chain me to the railings. Martyn: There seem to be a lot of policemen. And he switches to narrative: The police were brandishing their batons. They charged! They broke into the crowd. People tried to scatter. But it was impossible. Eva was gone.
You’ll have to go to Dublin, via the play, to find out what happens. It is well worth the journey.
Dublin by Lamplight. Written by Michael West; directed by Tom Reing. Inis Nua Theatre Company at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, New York City. 212-279-4200; Opened Sept 14, 2011; closes Oct 2, 2011. Review on New York Theatre Wire.