The opening of a new theater goes terribly wrong.
Known as a nation of storytellers, Ireland’s most celebrated plays are revered for their ability to tell an involving tale. Simply staged, the plays emphasize language and require actors with impressive oratorical skills.
Dublin by Lamplight is just the opposite.
Inis Nua’s thrilling production of Michael West’s Lamplight takes place over the course of a single day in 1904 Dublin, which is marked by two significant events: a visit to the city from the king and the debut of the Irish National Theater of Ireland.
And although the play includes dialogue, the characters often speak in the third person, standing outside themselves like an observer describing what they’re thinking or doing. The novel-style narrative allows the characters to reflect on their own thoughts and actions, but the melodramatic plot is so convoluted that it can be difficult at times to discern just what the heck is going on.
However, while Lamplight doesn’t succeed entirely as a literary work, Director Tom Reing’s production staging is so engaging that it manages to overcome the script’s shortcomings. It’s got more raw emotion—expressed physically rather than through words—than your average Jerry Springer Show. The cast executes the combination of styles with a series of bold performances that capture the idealism of characters who dream of creating a national theater that will “strike a blow for freedom and Ireland.”
The play’s primary characters are all involved in the birth of the new theater. There is the producer and author of the company’s debut play, Willy (the resourceful Charlie DelMarcelle); the play’s leading man and Willy’s brother Frank (an assured Jared Michael Delaney); the political activist and leading lady Eva (the reliable Megan Bellwoar); the dandified thespian Martyn (Mike Dees in a huge performance that registers as one of the season’s best); a shy stagehand named Jimmy (Kevin Meehan in a heartbreaking portrayal); and the lovestruck seamstress who dreams of theater stardom, Maggie (Sarah Van Auken).
Unfortunately, opening night for the new Irish company doesn’t exactly go as planned. Willy is mugged, Eva lands in jail and Frank is more concerned with killing the king than performing in Willy’s comedy about “the saving of Ireland’s soul.” Even after the curtain rises and the show begins, (which the actors perform in a “bombastic” style of acting popular in the 19th century when actors address the audience rather than each other and rely on absurdly stilted gestures), the chaos continues backstage with government intrusions and an argument between Eva and Maggie that spills out on to the stage.
Although the cast and Reing’s direction are impressive, much of the credit goes to make-up artist Maggie Baker, who in addition to designing the show’s costumes, is responsible for creating the garish masks worn by the cast. Each mask moves and changes with the actor’s facial expressions. It is a jarring visual effect that allows the actors (who between them play more than 30 characters) to suddenly transform into another character with nothing more than a signature costume piece such as a scarf or cap.
Equally effective is Lisi Stoessel’s scenic design. Masking the few modern additions to enhance the ancient feel of Broad Street Ministry’s space, Stoessel incorporates scalloped footlights and traditional red drapes along with the space’s existing wood interior and balcony (which Reing exploits to great effect) to transform us back in time to the streets of 1904 Dublin and the inside of the old Abbey Theatre, where the Irish National Theatre of Ireland was born.
Perhaps the most stylistically audacious production of the season, Lamplight presents us with an example of a new Irish theater that honors its traditions without being bound by them.
Through May 14. $20-$25. Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St. 215.454.9776. inisnuatheatre.org
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide