Ireland’s economy may be in very deep waters, but culturally we’re becoming a superpower. If you need proof of how influential our tiny little island still is on the world’s stage, look no further than the multiple stages of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival playing throughout Manhattan this month.
Featuring 21 Irish playwrights, 12 venues, five world premieres, and 375 artists over five weeks (the entire event runs from September 1 to October 4) the rapidly growing Irish theater festival has been a success story from its first day, actually doubling in size this year since its inaugural year in 2008. Even the normally jaded critics of The New York Times have taken notice, penning rave reviews for the first few shows to hit town.
That never happens. Normally ethnic based arts festivals cry out for press attention. So it’s a measure of the hunger for all things Irish that the critics have turned up at all.
Featuring exciting new Irish plays with punchy titles like “Trad,” “Cell,” “Blood Guilty,” “The Good Thief,” “Walking the Road” and “Short Wake,” the shows are already selling out just as the festival begins to hit its stride this week. It also helps that the material on offer is so diverse -- several shows feature Irish actors who are at least as well known as the playwrights themselves, proving that the festival has really found its feet in its second year.
For Vincent Dowling, 80, the legendary former artistic director of Ireland’s National Theatre the Abbey, it’s been a rare opportunity to take to the boards himself alongside the gifted Christy Jones, a fellow septuagenarian, in a rare appearance for the Bronx Theatre Company’s affecting Irish drama “Blood Guilty.”
Set in a remote Irish farmhouse where two elderly brothers are wrenched out of their isolation when the future comes knocking at their door, playwright Antoine O’Flatharta’s oddly memorable and affecting one-act drama reveals how the past, present and future are often inextricably linked.
“Blood Guilty,” in which Dowling and Jones play the two elderly brothers, offers a violent old versus young facedown that lingers in the memory. Where, the play asks, does responsibility lie for the sins of the past and present? How do we move forward without giving in to our grief and anger?
For Dowling, working on “Blood Guilty” has been a rewarding and provocative experience.
“I’ve found myself being oddly moved by this play even as I’m performing it. The strange thing is that it happens when I least expect it -- and I know this is true for the other actors too,” he says.
Each of the festival’s shows is being offered in a diverse series of venues throughout town. From the upscale 59 East 59 Street Theatre to New York’s well known Irish Repertory Theatre to the fit em’ up ambience of the Players’ Loft Theatre on MacDougal Street, there are as many kinds of venues to enjoy each show in as there are plays to fill them.
But not every New York critic sees the value of an annual Irish theater festival, and already some have groused in print about overlooking home grown talent in favor of these loquacious Celtic blow-ins.
But for a majority of people, it’s an opportunity to see new Irish work in New York that would rarely get staged otherwise. Ireland doesn’t breed more playwrights than anywhere else. It can just seem that way to some exasperated critics.
Short Wake is a punchy one-act involving two Staten Island brothers, Teddy and Jimmy, who have not seen or talked to one another for 10 years, bringing the festival a welcome Irish American dimension. Playing at the Manhattan Theatre Source on MacDougal Street, the play starts when the two brothers meet at the funeral of their bad-tempered, abusive Irish-American ex-bookie father. Codependents in the worst way, Teddy tells Jimmy at one point that he goes to Confession to confess his brother’s sins as well as his own, and then sparks fly.
For the award winning writer Sebastian Barry, the festival provides more than just another opening of one of his plays in New York. Coming to the 1st Irish Theatre Festival has actually renewed his desire to write for the stage.
“New York is a very distinctive place, a very special place, and I know how lucky we are to get a terrific review in The New York Times,” Barry tells the Irish Voice.
“The Pride of Parnell Street” is a small scale play and production and it’s an adventure that we’re on together. We originally thought that we’d do a couple of weeks in Dublin and that would be it. The play exceeded all our expectations.”
Seeing the work of Conor McPherson, whose play “The Good Thief” is also being staged at the festival, inspired Barry to return to writing for the stage after a decade long hiatus.
“Conor’s play ‘Shining City’ did something to me when I saw it here in New York. I went home through the streets reeling, thinking that I’d seen something wonderful,” Barry says.
“It had something to do with being alive. Doing my own play for Fishamble (the Dublin theater company) was part of that process again. Trying to trick out the spider of theatre again.”
Since it was another Irish writer who inspired Barry to return to writing plays, it’s appropriate that works by both he and McPherson are being staged during the festival.
“I realized I wanted to do that thing again that I’d lost sight of as a playwright, to do that thing that creates enormous performances in an actor. To reveal them in some way. What I’ve loved most about my time in the theater is to see actors rise to something that is in essence almost impossible.”
“The Pride of Parnell Street” is a lyrical and immensely powerful work that charts 10 hard years in the marriage of Janet and Joe, two inner city Dublin lovers whose happy union ends in a senseless act of violence. Audiences and critics alike were moved by the play’s slow building emotional force.
“That’s why I’m pleased we’ve prospered because a part of me feels that it’s vaguely miraculous to prosper in the theatre,” adds Barry.
Billy Roche’s short stories, two of which he performed at the Irish Repertory Theatre, are taken from his recent collection “Tales From Rainwater Pond.” Deceptively simple meditations on the nature of love and longing, Roche is the ideal teller of his own tales, finding pathos in moments so slight and so human that only a poet could catch and record their beauty.
“Trad,” a darkly funny piece by Mark Doherty in which a centenarian and his even older father set out on a hobbling journey to find a heir, is a festival of Irish stereotypes exploded. It’s also a meditation on how tradition can imprison as well as liberate, an always-timely message.
The message of is play is probably best summed up by the son’s speech when he finally snaps and confronts his demanding Da: “Is that what tradition is? Everyone standing still and facing backwards?”
The play first premiered at the Galway Arts Festival in 2004 and is best understood in the context of the rapidly changing Ireland of the late Celtic Tiger era, as seen through the dark exhausted eyes of a centenarian and his even older father who are on an absurd quest to track down their 70-year-old son and grandson, their only heirs.
Ireland, the play suggests, has altered at an all too rapid pace, and not all souls have kept up with the changes. Da tells his son that he knows his own day has passed, and now it’s up to him to get on with the difficult business of living in a quietly uplifting moment that is at the heart of the play.
For the young actors (Mike Dees, Jared Michael Delaney and Charlie DelMarcelle) the challenge is to convince us they’re impossibly old and yet completely in charge of their faculties, a situation that leads to a lot of physical comedy as quickly as you’d expect.
“Cell,” Paula Meehan’s hard as nails play about inner city Dublin life, has also captured a lot of buzz during the festival’s run, as has the rival of McPherson’s one hander “The Good Thief,” which examines a day in the life of a small time Dublin criminal directed by John Keating and featuring Sean Gormley, last seen in Brian Friel’s “Aristocrats” at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
For a provocative look at some home truths hidden within Irish nationalism, you should check out Dermot Bolger’s remarkable “Walking the Road,” now showing at the Players’ Loft.
Bolger’s experimental theater piece uses the life of the celebrated Irish poet Francis Ledwidge (who died tragically young at the age of 29 in 1917) to tell the life stories of numerous young Irishmen from South Dublin villages like Rathfarnham, Tallaght, Lucan, Clondalkin and Saggart who died in World War I in the uniform of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and whose stories were often written out of the wider narrative of Irish history.
In “Walking the Road,” Ledwidge exists in a state that is somewhere between life and death. He knows that he is walking home from somewhere, but that place keeps shifting.
At times he is walking home from Flanders. At other times he is a boy again leaving Rathfarnham (where he wrote his first poem) and at other times he is walking home through the dark of South Dublin. At first he feels himself to be alone, but gradually ghosts from all the places that he is passing join him.
Bolger deliberately names the towns and soldiers Ledwidge encounters, the better to restore their histories. All those dead young men from across South Dublin who have never been part of the narrative of Irish history are restored to us by Bolger’s defiant act of remembrance.
It’s difficult to conceive of an Irish theater festival that doesn’t feature at least one play by the most playful of Irish writers, Oscar Wilde. In this 1st Irish doesn’t disappoint.
In “The Selfish Giant,” a play for children -- and, let’s face it, overgrown adults -- Wilde plays to his strengths as an ironist and as a disarming wit in a tale about an introverted giant who’s bad temper and refusal to share with others almost ruins his life.
A surprisingly tender Christian allegory -- there have been suggestions over the years that Wilde’s wife Constance may have amended the original endings -- it’s classic Wilde, both moving and very funny. You can catch the show at the Players’ Loft until October 25.
For laughs you should check out Lennox Robinson’s sturdy old chestnut “Is Life Worth Living,” which explores what happens when an idealistic and not terribly accomplished repertory troupe brings the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg to the small Irish village of Inish, where they quickly drive the amiable local audience out of their minds.
The craic begins when the town’s elders decide to improve the tone of the place by introducing the masterworks of modern European drama to its happily rustic citizens. Enter the ostentatious Hector De La Mare and his wife Constance Constantia of the De La Mare Repertory company, a troupe of theatrical chancers wholly committed to “psychological and introspective drama, the great plays of Russia, an Ibsen or two, a little Strindberg.”
The joke is there’s no such thing as a little Strindberg, and whether or not the souls of Inish require improvement is a question that’s only asked in the aftermath, when the damage is done. You can catch this wildly funny show at the Mint Theatre at 311 West 43rd Street.
The New York public is quickly coming to realize that Ireland’s culture is its strongest suit, as each of these beautifully written and performed dramas clearly illustrate.
For tickets to the festival visit www.1stIrish.org or call 212-253-8300.