Aaron Heffernan and Jack Gleeson in Bears In Space.

From puppet bears who travel through space, to aliens who just want to come home, to Irish people desperately trying escape from everything that even reminds them of home, the stories told at the 1st Irish Theatre Festival this year are nothing if not provocative. Cahir O'Doherty reviews some highlights from the ongoing festival.

Aliens are something that most Irish believe in, since we have quite a bit of experience of being aliens ourselves – and what could be more Irish than a trip to the passport office?

The thing is, usually it’s us doing all the globetrotting. In actor and writer Sonya Kelly’s sweetly funny new play now playing as part of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival How to Keep an Alien, the alien in question is actually her partner, who hails from Australia and who quickly runs afoul of the complicated Irish immigration process.

The story begins with a big career crisis. In Dublin Kelly is working on a Russian play performed with English accents in an Irish castle. She’s not feeling the love and she’s questioning her life choices. In fact she’s this close to hitting what she calls the “f*** it” button.

That’s when she meets a stage manager called Kate and a brief fling becomes “a thing.” The wrinkle is that Kate’s Australian and that means, if they want to stay together, they’ll have to prove to the Irish authorities that they’re really “a couple.”

Sounds easy in theory, but it’s much more difficult in practice. Normally love is a private thing between two people. For immigration purposes, though, love is a thing between a couple, the government and practically

Just putting together a dossier of evidence for “the visa people” takes Kelly and her partner on a global odyssey from Co. Offaly to the Queensland Bush.

People everywhere like to moan about immigrants, but the actual process they go through just to stay should make them our heroes. Kelly learns that herself waiting in the visa office where she sees cases far more dire than her own.

Onstage Kelly trades barbs, jokes and brilliantly executed vignettes from the real journey that loving an alien has led her through with actor and stage manager Paul Curley, who variously plays a disgruntled visa office worker, a compere and a lounge singer.

Nothing is funnier than life or death anxiety, and Kelly mines a rich seam with this material. Life, she reminds us, is not a movie; it’s an underestimated gas bill. Do not miss this show, which is playing at the Irish Arts Center through October 1.

You can’t really do the plot of Bears in Space justice by narrowly describing it on paper. Yes, it’s about bears that travel through space on a rocket, but it’s also about friendship, ambition, love, loyalty and quiet as opposed to loudly announced heroism.

Featuring Game of Thrones alumnus Jack Gleeson (the poisonous and eventually poisoned King Joffrey) in the cast list, the spoiled villain of the show seems not a million miles away from a certain spray tanned would be presidential contender we’re all currently saddled with.

Featuring an all male cast of college-aged performers, the script by Brooklyn-based Dubliner Eoghan Quinn and the ensemble (the production is by Irish theater company Collapsing Horse) may remind you of the anarchic brilliance of early Monty Python.

Quinn is clearly gifted, fashioning a hilarious and weirdly touching sci-fi drama out of found materials and puppetry. It helps that show features gifted performers (including Quinn himself) with terrific work from Gleeson and a star making turn by Love/Hate newcomer Aaron Heffernan.

Reviews that have called Bears in Space silly escapist fun seem to miss or overlook the whip smart critiques of contemporary political and social mores, because Quinn manages to smuggle in quite a lot of subversion for a show that’s, on the surface at least, this undeniably sweet.

A highlight of the 1st Irish Festival, do whatever you can to win a coveted seat at this (Thrones fans are a particularly hardcore fan base). Bears In Space is now playing at 59E59 Theater through October 2.

In Ireland, we have had plays about epic family dysfunction for years from gifted authors like Tom Murphy and Brian Friel, but in recent times a new generation of playwrights have offered us pantomimes more often than tragedies, and cynicism more often than insight.

Honor Molloy’s Crackskull Row is a rare exception, a new Irish tragedy that resides somewhere on a continuum between Sean O’Casey’s Juno and Euripides’ Medea. It’s a gothic tale about inherited damage featuring characters who either prolong or try to escape it forever.

John Charles McLaughlin and Terry Donnelly in Crackskull Row.

John Charles McLaughlin and Terry Donnelly in Crackskull Row.

History of every kind haunts every scene in the play, of course. The history of Dublin, the history of the fated and fatal Moorigan clan, haunting the footsteps of every actor onstage.

As Masher, the old woman haunted by her broken beyond repair past, Terry Donnelly is variously mother Ireland, the infernal Morrigan of Irish myth, the woman you run to and the woman you try to escape.

Donnelly presents every side of her complex character, from the girlish charmer to the ravening tyrant, in a role that gives expression to it all. I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen a female character given this much agency in an Irish play.

Molloy is interrogating the inherited damage of a family, and through that the broken inheritance of Dublin and Ireland itself. Here the sow that eats her own farrow, in James Joyce’s parlance, is quite literally depicted. It’s a never-ending spiral of rage and consequence.

The play is beautifully written and at all times absorbing because it understands the potency of the themes it has unleashed. In seeking shelter from the man who terrorizes them both, Masher and her son Rasher (John Charles McLaughlin) find solace in each other’s arms, but the chaos of their lives makes the bond become incestuous, setting the course for tragedy.

Crackskull Row is set in the kind of run down tenement ruin that would have been familiar to O’Casey, and although the play is set in 1999 it could be any year of the 20th century. Time passes almost imperceptibly behind these four walls, and what time has passed has been filled with rich recriminations and inconsolable regrets.

Molloy is clearly both charmed and repulsed by her two central creations, the fantasist Masher and her wandering bard and abusive husband Basher. The name echoing is intentional, since the harm they do to each other is absorbed though the skin and the soul and then passed on and on until you can’t tell one from another.

Set in a night town that would also have been familiar to Joyce, the play unfolds in a place of desolation, down a dirty laneway where dreams come to an end.

As Dolly, the hopeful daughter who tries to escape the shadows that are devouring her family, Gina Costigan is first defiant, then destroyed by forces she can neither contend with nor control. Few Irish playwrights have dared to be this ambitious in years. Crackskull Row blazes to life with an anguished and unsettling howl. It is playing at the Workshop Theater Company, 312 West 36th Street, through September 25.