‘Emperor Jones’ review: stay out of the woods

Obi Abili as Brutus Jones in Irish Rep’s production of ‘The Emperor Jones.’ © Carol Rosegg

How it’s New York: Irish Rep presents the piece, one of the finest gems of a residential theatre in the city.
How it’s Irish: Eugene O’Neill was proud of his Irish heritage.

“The Emperor Jones” is Horror.

It is in the Horror genre the way “Night of the Walking Dead” is Horror.

How did I never notice this before?

“Blair Witch Project” has nothing on Eugene O’Neill’s (1920) play “The Emperor Jones.”

From the moment Brutus Jones (Obi Abili ) enters the woods, to try to get to the other side of the island, away from the natives he robbed blind, the drums never stop, the shadows hide monsters, and the creep factor is too high to measure.

O’Neill wrote his one-act this way—the “little formless  fears” are the first thing Jones encounters. But usually the takeaway is the psychological study, the ghosts of Jones’ own past that afflict him and the race memory that takes him to an auction block and even a slave ship.

Also, the takeaway from the show is usually the tour de force of the eponymous role. But while Abili brings gravitas and intensity to his role, his performance is not the main event. The play itself is, and that’s how it should be.

Director Ciarán O’Reilly, with the help of choreographer Barry McNabb, and evocative music by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, additional music by Christian Frederickson, has put together a dark, precise and unforgettable production.

What terrors lurk in the woods?

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‘The Penitent’ is not absolved

How it’s New York: The play is by acclaimed playwright David Mamet, who is a founding member of one of NYC’s finest residential theatres, Atlantic Theatre Company.
How it’s (Irish) English & Jirish: Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays one of the four roles, has dual British/American citizenship. The play is Jirish because the main character is Jewish and has recently turned to religion to deal with his guilt.

Is it better than “China Doll?”

That’s the burning question.

It is. But honestly, that’s a low bar.

You may remember that David Mamet’s 2015 play, “China Doll,”  starred Al Pacino, who notoriously couldn’t remember his lines. The Broadway play was bad. It wasn’t entirely Pacino’s fault , because who in the Hell casts a movie star in a roll in which he basically has a long monologue (on the phone) for half an hour?  (Yes, Pacino has done a lot of stage work, but not in a while.)

In contrast, “The Penitent” has a series of two-person scenes. There is conflict. (There’s also some clumsy exposition.) There are characters. There is some decent acting (though Rebecca Pidgeon is so horrifically affected she was difficult to watch. She actually waited mid-line to be interrupted. Seriously, acting students know better.)

One could even say, “The Penitent” is GREAT!

Great, that is, if you know nothing about law, psychiatry or Judaism. (more…)

Romantic Ireland is not dead and gone – We have Declan O’Rourke

How it’s New York: The performance took place at The Irish Arts Center in New York City
How it’s Irish: Declan O’Rourke is Irish

I saw the wonderful Declan O’Rourke at the Irish Arts Center on Sunday night at his final performance of a three night run as part of their Valentine’s weekend programming.

Declan O'Rourke and orchestra ©Ian Toft

Declan O’Rourke and orchestra ©Ian Toft

The show opened with a 12-piece orchestra playing a piece composed for the evening. This was followed by the arrival of the very large presence of O’Rourke on stage. With the stance and posture of an ancient Irish warrior he opened the set with the very somber and haunting, “Her Silken Brown Hair”, which sounds more like a traditional Irish ballad than something penned by a 39-year-old.

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‘If I Forget’ asks when does history predict the future?

How it’s New York: Characters in the play live in Park Slope, and the play is a production of the Roundabout Theatre Company, one of New York’s most important residential theatres.
How it’s (Irish) Jirish: The play centers on the question of what the Holocaust means to Jewish identity, but in its family dynamics and many of its concerns with the past and the future, will feel very relevant to Irish-Americans too.

The adult sibling relationships in Steven Levenson’s ambitious new drama “If I Forget” are hilariously, and sadly, convincing. The Fischer family children–Michael (Jeremy Shamos), Holly (Kate Walsh, yes that Kate Walsh, of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and Sharon (Maria Dizzia) have just the right amount of in-jokes, shared history and buttons that are pushed, resentments and affection that anyone who’s got them will feel a jolt of pleasant, and uncomfortable, recognition.

The plot of the play, which won the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, is less compelling, despite terrific performances by the cast, which also include Larry Bryggman as elderly father Lou,  Tasha Lawrence as Michael’s wife Ellen, Gary Wilmes as Holly’s attorney husband Howard, and Seth Steinberg as Holly’s teenage son-from-a-prior-marriage Joey.

Wading into Arthur Miller territory, Levenson (best known for his libretto to “Dear Evan Hansen”) centers Act One around the question of Jewish identity vis-a-vis the Holocaust. It’s Miller territory because Michael, a Jewish Studies professor who has been “recommended for tenure,” has a book titled “Forgetting the Holocaust” in galleys. Its thesis  suggests that American Jews make too much of the Holocaust and it’s time to forget about it. He delivers well-constructed impassioned speeches, but nobody offers an equally impassioned, articulate rebuttal. Fortunately for the play, the drama doesn’t center so much around this question that it becomes about it. (more…)

‘The Present’: a small gift inside a big box

How it’s New York: ‘The Present’ with Cate Blanchett runs on Broadway, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
How it’s (Irish) Australian: Blanchett hails from Melbourne, Australia; the show comes to us via the the Sydney Theatre Company. Since itis an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Platonov,” his  early (and really, untitled) play, this show is also “Celto-Slav” and Russian.

It helps to read the play first.

That’s an unusual suggestion for me– usually I like to let a work stand by itself. But here, it really helps to know what the set-up is before you go. Even if you just read an act or two.

All of the elements of Anton Chekhov’s later plays are already there in his early work known as “Platonov.” Chekhov didn’t name the play, discovered 20 years after he died himself, and it has been called “Platonov,” “Wild Honey,” and “The Disinherited,” among others; it’s been adapted by Michael Frayn and David Hare; directed with rich theatrical gesture by Jiri Pokorny. Uncut, the play would last about six hours. But it’s all there: ennui. Fading, poor aristocracy. Possibility of a marriage of salvation. Empty trysts. A smart, disillusioned, unfulfilled schoolteacher.

So there’s much to love about “The Present,” an adaptation of that early work by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband), directed by John Crowley. If anyone knew how to put people, hurt, dissatisfied, unpredictable people, in a room together and see what happened, it was Chekhov (Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” owes him a lot).

Blanchett is completely luminous in her Broadway debut as Anna, a young widow who is celebrating her 40th birthday by inviting several suitors and friends to spend the weekend with her at her country estate.

That little synopsis, though, is more than you might figure out for quite a while, all but the 40th birthday bit, which is announced. (more…)

‘New York City: A Shining Mosaic’ review

How it’s New York: Tales of immigrants who arrived in New York City.
New York City: A Shining Mosaic produced by Charles Hale. September 27, 2016. 1st Irish Theatre Festival. Featuring Niamh Hyland, Walter Parks, Elsa Nilsson, Eleanor Dubinsky, Laura Neese, John Duddy, Jack O'Connell, Mala Waldron, Yuri Juárez, Julie Kline, and Charles Hale at Pier A Harbor House, New York City.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Traphagen.

How it’s Irish: Those arriving left lives behind in Ireland. This piece was part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish 2016.

Were this event staged a few years back, before the advent of the so-called “information age,” there’s quite a chance that attendees of this extraordinary production may well have invited encyclopedia salesmen into their home, to peruse their wares, and purchase a volume or two, to look up a few of the fascinating tidbits that Charles R. Hale’s modern masterpiece had informed them of.

“New York City: A Shining Mosaic” is so much more than a play: it is a series of vignettes, a song and dance revue, a carefully interwoven collection of biographies of several characters, some seen, others merely mentioned.

It is a story which unravels elegantly, a timeless tale that reminds us that there were generations here before us, dozens, scores, hundreds of them: men and women who had less, but yearned for more. Brooklyn had them by the thousands. :New York City: A Shining Mosaic,” directed by Niamh Hyland (music), Julie Kline and Charles R. Hale, is brought to us by Artists Without Walls, and is a production celebrated aptly right within sight of the arrival of all of those millions of immigrants who made it to New York, at Pier A, which looks out on New York Harbor, with Lady Liberty and Ellis Island calmly watching in the wings.

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“Crackskull Row” at Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival

How it’s New York: Written by New York based playwright and author Honor Molloy and performed as part of Origin Theatre Company’s 1st Irish Festival 2016 in New York City
How it’s Irish: Set in Dublin in 1999
Terry Donnelly & Colin Lane (photo by Michael Bonasio)

Terry Donnelly & Colin Lane (photo by Michael Bonasio)

The rough-hewn walls, threadbare curtains and dilapidated leather sofa set the stage for an intense slice of Dublin life in Honor Molloy‘s play “Crackskull Row”.  The show opens with the long absent son/narrator Rasher Moorrigan (played by John Charles McLaughlin) giving exposition on the state of the family and the addled and fragile remains of his mother that we are about to meet.

Terry Donnelly stars as Masher, the mother of the piece, pining for bygone days, lost love and absent children.  She’s worn down to a nub of herself and hides everything she needs within the confines of the couch where she sits, sleeps, and eats.  A hardscrabble woman who was a bit of a “dolly” in her day, she imagines her daughter (played by Gina Costigan) doting on her and her absent son (played by Colin Lane/John Charles McLaughlin) fulfilling her desires and fuelling her frustrations.

This play attacks your senses and sensibility with both barrels and it’s hard to tell at times what is real and what is not.  A daughter appears, but is she real?  There seems to be a strange relationship between the mother and son.  How did the long-dead father really die?  And why has Rasher come back? (more…)

An agonizing, haunting look at famine in Donnacha Dennehy’s “The Hunger”

Iarla Ó Lionáird and Katherine Manley perform in Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger, a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound. (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

Iarla Ó Lionáird and Katherine Manley perform in Donnacha Dennehy’s The Hunger, a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound. (Photo courtesy of Jack Vartoogian/BAM)

How it’s New York: Alarm Will Sound had its origins at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and its debut concert was in New York in 2001. “The Hunger” was included as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
How it’s Irish: The play originates from first-hand accounts of the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s. Playwright Donnacha Dennehy is a Dublin native, and the founder of the Irish musical ensemble Crash Ensemble. The play is presented in partnership with the Irish Arts Center.

Hauntingly melodic and starkly condemning at the same time, “The Hunger,” Donnacha Dennehy’s collaboration with Alarm Will Sound, is many things all in one: an opera, a documentary, a concert. The result is a work that is meant to unsettle the audience rather than to console.

The show had two performances on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s

As Asenath, Manley is the leader of a one-woman chorus, a Cassandra figure whose words and appeals seem to fall on deaf governmental ears in England. It is hard not to be frustrated at her recounting how a man on the verge of death is repeatedly told “come back on Tuesday” to receive his ration of grain.

Howard Gilman Opera House, as part of the 2016 BAM Next Wave Festival.

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Ann Kirrane’s ‘Behind Yon Mountain’ brings in a rainbow

How it’s New York: Singer Ann Kirrane has performed in New York.album_cover_behind_yon_mountain
How it’s Irish: Kirrane is from Clare, and the CD includes songs from all over the island.

Singer Ann Kirrane has a clear soprano voice that is full of warmth and expression. In her second album, “Behind Yon Mountain,” the Tuam singer uses it jauntily, sorrowfully, joyfully, and always beautifully. It’s trad, yes, but gentle, chamber trad, Sunday morning with coffee and a croissant, sunlight filtering in.

The title is fitting: it’s a CD that promises a flash of light, a rainbow, around the next hill.

In fact, there’s a beautiful picture of a rainbow in the CD sleeve in this cleverly designed jacket. Each song has nice notes (and thanks to whomever decided not to go with reverse type, so that they’re readable).

The 15-song CD includes songs in Irish, traditional songs, and songs by contemporary songwriters Mick Curry, John Doyle, Brendan Graham, among others- including Leonard Cohen. 

Originally from Bellharbour, Co. Clare, Kirrane has music in her blood: her father Chris Droney and grandfather Jim both played concertina, and so did she, winning the  Growing up, she played with her father, with Tommy Peoples, Kitty Linnane and Paddy Mullins of the Kilfenora Céili Band.

The album journeys around Ireland, including songs from different regions, and also around many different Irish moods. If you like the singing of Heidi Talbot, Mary Black, Dolores Keane,  Ann Kirrane’s CD will fit nicely in your collection. (more…)

‘The Cure’ by Conal Creedon, Directed by Tim Ruddy.

How it’s New York: This play, featuring Michael Mellamphy, was performed in Queens, as part of the 1st Irish Festival.
the_cure_6556

Michael Mellamphy in Conal Creedon’s “The Cure.” ©Babette Perez.

How it’s Irish: Written, directed and starring Irish artists.

We may not be fortunate enough to know the likes of Michael Mellamphy, an award-winning actor from County Cork, well enough to say hello to. Many of us are, on the other hand, in a position where we’re aware of the existence of such characters as John Murphy (or Sean O’Murchu, depending on who is referring to him), the individual Mellamphy plays in “The Cure,” a one-man piece, written by Conal Creedon (“The Trial of Jesus,” ‘” Be To The Father,” “Second City Trilogy”) and directed by Tim Ruddy (“The International”).

Mellamphy’s portrayal of John Murphy, a washed-up, broken-down and burnt-out survivor of Cork’s Christian Brothers schools, is a welcoming natural force, brushing aside any stereotypical ideas we might have of an Irish man who likes a pint, and banishing them forever, in a drawer filled with inflatable shamrocks and curly green wigs.

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Glen Hansard at Carnegie Hall – September 14, 2016

How it’s New York: at New York’s Iconic Carnegie Hall
How it’s Irish: Dublin Singer/Songwriter Glen Hansard

glen-hansard-at-carnegie-hall

This was one show very close to my heart!

I first met Glen Hansard in Sin-é, an East Village café that was once at the epicenter of hot young Irish rock and Trad culture.  He was all curls and wide-eyed wonder, and the enthusiasm and passion he had for music is still going strong nearly 25 years later. 

 

I’ve hungrily devoured all the delicious musical morsels that have poured out of his voice and guitar over the years and the cherry on top was getting to see him reach the pinnacle of a solo show at Carnegie Hall.

The warmth of that hallowed hall made the tone of his songs even sweeter as he launched the show with You Will Become

He was jovial and totally at ease, peppering  his set with anecdotes and reminiscences 

from his debut album, “Rhythm and Repose.” With a stripped-down band consisting of a string quartet (with longtime Frames stalwart Joe Doyle on both upright and electric bass) and additional guitar and drums, the acoustics of the room made it an intimate experience, even from the farthest balcony.

Glen drew on many of the songs from his two solo releases – the 2015 “Didn’t He Ramble” and the 2012 “Rhythm and Repose.”  He was jovial and totally at ease, peppering  his set with anecdotes and reminiscences about the road to this momentous show.  Joining him for Lowly Deserter and Wedding Ring (from “Didn’t He Ramble”) was brilliant Brooklyn trombone player Curtis Fowlkes of The Jazz Passengers and John Laurie’s The Lounge Lizards.  There were even a few moments where Glen went totally acoustic, just his voice and guitar filled that historic space with the whole audience hanging on every note. (more…)

Andrew Finn Magill’s ‘Roots’ go deep

How it’s New York: According to LinkedIn, Andrew Finn Magill has lived in New York13244016_731296016974100_3566772383683040555_o
How it’s Irish: He’s a virtuoso Irish fiddler

 This review first appeared in Irish Music Magazine.

10 tracks.

37.16 minutes
www.andrewfinnmagill.com

“Roots” by Andrew Finn Magill is only the first of two albums the virtuoso fiddler plans to release in 2016; the second, “Branches,” is slated to come out in the autumn and will feature more of his jazz and Brazilian influence.

From the first confident notes of the first track, a set of reels including “Miss MacDonald” and “The Siesta,” the album has you tapping your feet and smiling. Magill, a North Carolina boy, was an All-Ireland fiddle finalist twice by age 14, His LinkedIn page somehow has him living in both Brazil and New York, and he leads his own Brazilian choro quartet, O Finno.

His first album, 2005’s “Drive & Lift,” received praise from all sides:. He’s been busy since then: he received a Fulbright-MtvU Fellowship to co-write and co-produce an album musically capturing HIV/AIDS experiences through song in Malawi. “Mau a Malawi: Stories of AIDS” came out in 2011. Not just a great musician, but a great person, clearly.

On “Roots,” he’s supported by the incomparably rhythmic John Doyle on guitar, as well as rising star Sean Earnest on guitar; master uillean piper Cillian Vallely; Vincent Fogarty on 10-string bouzouki and terrific fiddler Duncan Wickel.

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Riverdance at 20 is as good as you remember – only better

The "Riverdance" ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Amanda-Rachel Garcia/Prana Marketing)

The “Riverdance” ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Amanda-Rachel Garcia/Prana Marketing)

How it’s New York: The show had its U.S. debut at Radio City Music Hall in 1996. Current musical director and fiddler Pat Mangan is a Brooklyn boy. Tapper Christopher Broughton has some Broadway credits to his name.
How it’s Irish: Riverdance. You can’t get more Irish than that, can you?

The pre-recorded show greeting came first in Irish, then in English: You are welcomed to this 20th anniversary production of “Riverdance.”

Two questions were running through my head as I was setting into my seat, way up in the third tier at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark:

“Is it going to be as good as I remember?”

and

“How on earth has it been 20 years already?”

I’m afraid I really can’t answer the second question. But to the first question, I say: Yes. This incarnation of “Riverdance” was every bit as good as the original – and then some.

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Aedin Moloney shines in Sharman Macdonald

How it’s New York: Fallen Angels Theatre Company is a New York City-based company, and the show performs on Theatre Row at the Harold Clurman Theatre (tickets here).
Morag (Aedin Moloney, right) comforts Fiona (Barrie Kreinik). ©Carol Rosegg

Morag (Aedin Moloney, right) comforts Fiona (Barrie Kreinik). ©Carol Rosegg

How it’s Irish: Aedin Moloney is Irish, and her father, Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, wrote the music. The play itself is Scottish.

There’s something poignant about the fact that Fallen Angels’ production of “When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout” ends on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8, at the Harold Clurman Theatre.

Scottish playwright Sharman Macdonald’s play explores a fraught relationship between a mother and daughter, beginning in the present, when the daughter is 32 and on a beach holiday with mum, and flashing back to the daughter’s teenage years, when she takes a desperate step to keep a mum she doesn’t even really get along with by her side.

As that mum, Morag, Aedin Moloney shines. Even when she’s nagging her daughter Fiona (Barrie Kreinik) about providing her with a grandchild, you can’t help liking her. She puts so much heart in each moment that your stomach hurts for her. (more…)