Dublin By Lamplight
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
September 13, 2011
1904 was a watershed year for Irish drama. On December 27, the Abbey Theatre opened its doors, fostering a renaissance of new, specifically Irish writing for the stage at a time when Ireland was fighting to assert its national identity.
Michael West’s 2004 play, Dublin by Lamplight, re-examines the establishment of an Irish national theater through a fractured lens, gleefully mixing fact, fantasy, and history with stylistic borrowings from commedia dell’arte, story theater, Brecht, and melodrama. Philadelphia-based company Inis Nua Theatre brings Dublin by Lamplight to vibrant life at the 1st Irish Festival, even if the vibrancy flags when things get serious (and the accents aren’t always consistent).
West has created a brilliant collage/homage to the beginnings of Irish drama, a play that bristles with theatricality. Dublin by Lamplight features 30 characters played by six actors, each wearing a “fixed painted mask” a la commedia. Further commedia influence is evident in the rapid, physically precise differentiation between the characters, the use of mime, and bawdy humor. Just when things threaten to get too sentimental, for example, effluvia flows in—as when a character sings about the joys of Dublin while bicycling, only to have his reverie halted by dog poo.
The characters narrate their feelings and actions (“Martyn Wallace awoke in his boarding house and held his aching head”), a clear nod to story theater. The use of big, dramatic gesture, direct address, and deliberately histrionic plotlines (the playwright can’t pay the rent on his theater, the sweet young ingénue is threatened by ne’er-do-wells) recalls melodrama—though as the play progresses, and the future of the “Irish National Theatre of Ireland” is threatened with real political violence, tragedy takes over.
Director Tom Reing helms a talented ensemble, skillfully and instantly shifting from one character and location to another. Under his clever direction, the company—Megan Bellwoar, Mike Dees, Jared Michael Delaney, Michael Doherty, Jered McLenigan, and Sarah Van Auken—display lightning quick transformations and sharp comic timing. (At times, the rapid shifts lead to some inconsistent accent work, with some American vowels creeping in the dialogue). Only when the tragedy seeps in, does the energy dip. What should be unbearable suspense as the characters’ fantasies come crashing against ugly reality doesn’t quite feel inevitable, as if the shift in tones hasn’t quite had time to gel.
Nevertheless, this is a bracingly theatrical production, graced with solid performances and wonderful design. Meghan Jones has created a set—a wooden-looking proscenium flanked by clamshell footlights and graced with a balcony—that evokes the period while being flexible enough to accommodate the rapid shifts in location. Maggie Baker’s brightly-hued costumes immediately suggest 1904 Dublin while allowing for the instant shifts in character, while Terry Smith’s moody lighting adds to the play’s sense of romance, humor, and menace. Composer John Lionarons has created remarkable music to underscore the entire action, which he performs live on piano (and bell and tin whistle when needed). There is much to enjoy for fans of Irish theater history, and a welcome chance to see a fascinating out-of-town company.