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Inis Nua’s ‘Dublin By Lamplight’BY: Jim Rutter 05.03.2011
Michael West’s comic vision of an Irish theater production, circa 1904, offers actors suppressing revolutionary anger beneath comedy. It’s an apt evocation of the cultural starvation brought on by political repression,with a thoughtful and moving production by the Inis Nua troupe.
Dublin by Lamplight. By Michael West; Tom Reing directed. Inis Nua Theatre Company production through May 14, 2011 at Broad Street Ministries, 315 S. Broad St. (below Spruce). (215) 454-9776 or www.inisnuatheatre.org.
The eternal Irish dilemma:
Since last December, members of the Belarus Free Theatre have lived as political exiles. Hounded out of their homeland for staging works hostile to dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime, they now sleep on borrowed couches and depend on the kindness of fellow travelers who share their concerns but not their plight.
It’s tempting to wonder: What’s the point of such sacrifice? Why not simply follow the 1970s example of the Czech dissidents Jiri and Blanka Zizka and set up shop in a freer environment, such as Philadelphia?
Michael West’s Dublin by Lamplight, now receiving a thoughtful, moving production by Inis Nua, seems to ask the same question. West even invites us to laugh at his characters’ similar struggle in establishing the National Theatre of Ireland back in 1904.
Here, playwright Willy Fay (a sharp and subtle Charlie DelMarcelle) tries to stage his “Wooing of Emer,” a retelling of the mythological Irish warrior Cuchulainn as the company’s historic first production. Meanwhile, the self-righteous society woman doubling as leading lady (Megan Bellwoar) stages a political protest that gets her arrested. The dapper and overly fey professional actor Martyn signs autographs trying to free her; the pregnant costume girl Maggie (what else would her name be?) must go on in her absence; and Willy’s brother Frank (Jared Michael Delaney) delays the opening curtain by trying to blow up the visiting King of England with a suitcase bomb.
Act I reminds me of Michael Frayn’s parody, Noises Off— a bunch of buffoons bumbling their way through a heavy-handed, mock sincere production of a ridiculous play. Inis Nua’s troupe renders the story with the heightened theatricality of commedia dell’arte— drawing laughs from the lines as much as from the over-exaggerated emotions required by that style.
Like a silent movie
Continual and clever piano improvisations provided by John Lionarons lend Dublin By Lamplight the cagey feel of a silent movie. Maggie Baker deserves her own round of applause for the vivid costumes and accoutrements that help the actors quickly delineate and assume the multiple roles played by each of them.
The marvelous Megan Bellwoar grounds the entire production with her blend of comedy and serious acting, and the other performers swim close behind in her wake. Along with DelMarcelle and Delaney’s impressive performances, Mike Dees and Kevin Meehan grab laughs with every raised eyebrow or shuffled step, so that this Dublin amuses us right up to the moment the curtain comes crashing down.
Like Martin McDonagh’s Lieutenant of Inishmore, West’s play offers a skeptical appraisal of Ireland’s century of violence. Both works perceive that the country runs long on legend and short on a coherent sense of self. But where McDonagh laughs away the struggle with cartoonish violence, West adds depth with his sincere exploration of the cultural starvation brought on by political repression.
In this respect, Inis Nua’s production excels. Director Tom Reing staggers his actors in two rows across the stage; Terry Smith’s harsh spotlight intensifies the already heightened Commedia emotions as a dictatorial police officer questions each character as to their literary and political motives. “Plays contain coded messages,” the officer warns them— and in Inis Nua’s production, he’s right.
Inis Nua’s commedia approach allows the performers to find the hidden revolutionary heart of West’s play. The coded message— we must “Hellenize this island”— ultimately reminded me of theater’s harrowing power to move an audience not just emotionally, but to action— noble or not, toward a better end, or not. That it also encouraged the audience to emerge from darkness and reclaim our better selves tipped the balance of the struggle away from the sacrifice— of the Belarusian performers or similarly impoverished artists anywhere.♦
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