Posted by: strugglesome | May 2, 2011

This Little Light Of Mine: Inis Nua’s Dublin by Lamplight

There is a reason that artists were the first people Plato decided to eliminate from his Utopian Republic. Simply put, artists are dangerous, and people believe in and commit to art more deeply than they do to reality. And theater, well, theater is by far the worst offender, such subversive little stories about kings and crowns and clowns and all of it fake and all of the lies more moving then the facts. Certainly with a piece like Michael West’s Dublin By Lamplight, now being presented by Inis Nua Theatre and part of the Irish Theater festival we can see the danger in drama, its innate ability to present itself as something and then turn out to be something else altogether. Or at least, we should be able to see that, that’s what the play wants to us to see. What this particular production intends, however, is a great deal more opaque and less focused, and while it has moments of clear purpose and direction,  it ends up leaving it’s audience in the dark. (I’m sorry about that, but it had to be done).

Let’s talk about the play itself first. West’s work is a fascinating examination of an Irish theater company in Dublin in 1904 struggling to present their first collective show. Based on the real-life founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (but deviating quite a bit, obviously, real life is so very boring) this piece chronicles 6 theatricians and a host of other characters (all played by the 6 actors) as they try and fail to present the drama of “The Wooing of Emur”,  a play based on Irish Mythology and largely nationalist in nature. Love affairs, money troubles, unplanned pregnancies, chases, imprisonment and deaths (I’m not spoiling anything here, these plot points all the subtlety of a cast iron skillet to the head) haunt the production, however, and the poor protagonists (it’s quite a busy day for everyone, really), and create a sort of Murphy’s Law of premieres. Good thing it’s all pretend, right?

The story is almost mind bending complicated. Willy (played by Charlie DelMarcelle and based presumably on William Fay, a founding member of the Abbey Theatre) is on the verge of realizing his dream, the opening of the Irish National Theater of Ireland, but there is just one problem, and that problem is everyone else in his life. His shifty brother Frank (Jared Delaney) keeps disappearing and planning nefarious acts against the English crown, his leading lady/business partner Eva (Megan Bellwoar) is determined to be a political crusader or die trying, his seamstress Maggie (Sarah Van Auken) is busy mooning over Frank and dreaming of stardom and his carpenter Jimmy ( Kevin Meehan) hasn’t even finished the set. The only person who is remotely helpful is supporting actor Martyn ( Mike Dees), but the combined efforts of the two men can’t keep Eva out of jail, Frank out of trouble or Maggie out of the limelight, and so the narrative seems to both rush and plod along, characters running about and switching costumes every five seconds to give to try and us a glimpse of sweaty stinking smoky Dublin in all it’s glory. Part of what makes the story so confusing and bewildering is, ironically enough, the pace of the show. One would think that going slower would make things more clear but director Tom Reing’s almost leisurely pacing has in fact hurt the play, reducing the break neck farcical aspects to illogical over done complications and creating a lot of moments when the stage feels empty and stagnant. The story loses momentum easily, it needs to run, not crawl, and this production can’t seem to maintain a sense of energy and vitality, losing itself in mannerism and stylization.

An added layer of confusion lies in the fact that the story told in an entirely presentational marionette style, the cast wearing grease paint masking their faces and jerking about, their bodies awkwardly moving in a creaky Commedia dell’Arte parody crossed with a mechanical clock. And that they are running around the gloriously melodramatic amazingly beautiful Broad Street Ministries, lit dimly by lamps and a few sparingly used lights (design by Terry Smith). That combined with Maggie Baker’s excellent and inventive costume design and John Lionarons’ vaudvillian piano tunes ought to give this piece a rich gaudy weight and a subversive danger, but it doesn’t, really, and that’s because the production feels like it’s having a fight with the play. The rhythm of the text seems to be in direct opposition to the way this production has been paced and presented, and the poor actors seem as lost as the audience half of the time. It’s very rare that a piece can feel both overworked and careless, but that feels like what’s happening here, there are so many layers of style and gesture and convention and so many interesting opportunities being treated as obstacles, the accents, the make up, the physical distortion, that the story itself, the message of the play, the jumbled and joyously flawed humanity on display isn’t actually visible. While some actors like DelMarchelle and Meehan make a valiant effort to carve out moments of real story, poignancy and meaning, most of the cast doesn’t even bother, and mugging isn’t a strong substitute for actual emotion. Or for actual humor, for that matter. And if anything is being truly said here about the nature of theater and of humanity I didn’t get to hear it, so maybe this play is “For Theater, For Nationhood, For Freedom!” or maybe it’s just about silly men and women going through a stressful day, I don’t really know. With so much happening at once, it’s rather hard to see clearly (that was my last one, I promise.)

Inis Nua’s Dublin by Lamplight will be playing now through May 14th. Tickets are available here.

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