In theater, each night of an individual production’s run is different. When two different companies – seperated by both miles and years – perform a play, the separate interpretations magnify both flaws and strengths in their texts – and the differences in their productions become tools for gaining new insight into the multi-faceted fragility of this collaborative art form.
Having first seen Dublin By Lamplight when The Corn Exchange brought it to the Traverse Theater during the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, my second viewing was at the hands of Inis Nua, a Philadelphia-based company taking part in 1st Irish 2011 – a festival of Irish Theatre that spans New York City.
Seeing The Corn Exchange’s production in 2005 was breathtaking, if a bit confusing for someone who didn’t have a lot of experience with or understanding of either Irish culture or accents at the time. Artistically, the company was flawless; their dedication to presenting in the style of Commedia dell’arte style alone was worth the price of a ticket. The show communicated its big themes – nationalism, freedom of expression, terrorism vs. fighting for freedom – but its emotional impact was broad, with one of my colleagues at The British Theatre Guide writing, “The play itself is certainly flawed as it jumps about a lot and there are elements in the plot that are underworked or slightly confusing.” As a production, that incarnation of the play hinged less on individual characters and their emotional stories than their parts as chess pieces in an overarching strategy for Irish theatrical independence. At that viewing, I connected to the performers on a physical level – particularly Tom Jordan Murphy, who was a central lynchpin as Martyn in the Corn Exchange production – but for me, an emotional resonance was lacking.
In contrast, Inis Nua’s show is smaller and more intimate – partly a function of its performance space, but also thanks to the talent for inward expressiveness that I’ve noticed evidences itself more in American stage performances than in Irish or British ones. Instead of evoking emotion through physical movement, which the cast of The Corn Exchange’s production did exquisitely, Megan Bellwoar, Mike Dees, Jared Michael Delaney, Michael Doherty, Hered McLenigan and Sarah Van Auken bring out the more emotional side of the production.
Commedia dell’arte is a very physically specific form of theater, and one of the reasons that the original production of Dublin by Lamplight stood as such a strong piece of work was because of the aesthetics engaged as the company utilized the most specific and formalized methods of motion to form the basic architecture of their performances. At the same time, The Corn Exchange connected me to Michael West’s central themes of national pride more than the personal struggles of its characters.
The American production is different. The tragedy of the underclass, physical comedy and national pride are still there, but the interactions between characters are no longer drowned out by the physicality of the performance. Now, the viewer can engage with the show’s characters on a personal level. The emotional relationships between Maggie (Van Auken) and Jimmy (Doherty), the fickle adoration felt toward Eva (the austere and stately Megan Bellwoar) by both Willy (McLenigan) and Martyn (Dees), and blind brotherhood that passes between Willy and Frank (Delaney) become the focus of the piece. It’s different, but it’s definitely not a bad thing. The American sensibility for expressiveness in the face and eyes brings a more intense personal connection to the relationship between the characters and audience members than I felt during the Edinburgh production.
Proving that West’s play is far from a one-trick pony, the production holds up in micro as well as it did in macro. Dublin by Lamplight is a modern classic, a play that grows in significance with multiple viewings. Tom Reing, also the company’s Artistic Director, has done American audiences a service by bringing this modern Irish classic to the stage. It’s running until October 2nd – don’t miss it.