nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
March 18, 2009
Run, do not walk, do not mosey, (nor should you jig) to the final performances of Donal O'Kelly's The Cambria. This two-person show is a superb evening at the theatre. I encourage alacrity in booking tickets as it has (as of this writing) only four more performances. That's just criminal, and I'll tell you why.
Deftly mixing elements of dream play, children's theatre, poetry, folktale and song, The Cambria tells the story of Frederick Douglass's forced flight from the United States in 1845; after his life story A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave was published; furious slave-owners put a bounty on him, dead or alive. Under an assumed name with a first-class ticket, Douglass boarded the transatlantic paddle steamer Cambria for Ireland, hoping to find asylum. His identity aboard ship is quickly ferreted out and despite the efforts of many of his fellow first-class passengers; Douglass arrives safely in Queenstown in County Cork to a hero's welcome.
The Cambria is a kind of perfect storm. Raymond Keane's direction is superb; always specific but never heavy-handed. Any moment where the play threatens to push the bounds of credulity is quickly counterbalanced by another moment—be it gesture, poem, or song—that gently grounds the action and quietly demands the attention of the audience.
Great credit goes to Donal O'Kelly, the playwright (and co-star), who sets the tale against the current immigration and deportation policies of Ireland. Were Douglass to set foot in Ireland now, the outcome of his story would be markedly different. It is with a childlike sense of wonder and a profound sense of loss that the script asks the audience to "choose our better history." (Credit is given to President Obama in the playwright's notes.)
Designer Miriam Duffy's set is built to travel; the show has been performed all over Ireland and as such all the cast has (and all they need really) is a backdrop, some boxes, and some rope. The rest is up to them.
And what a pair they are. Both actors play a multitude of characters but O'Kelly has the task of bringing Douglass to life, which he does with quiet dignity and grace. One of the best scenes comes in the first act where O'Kelly must play a scene with himself, introducing us to the slave owner who later leads the mob to throw Douglass overboard. Supporting O'Kelly (and sometimes frankly overshadowing him) is the excellent Sorcha Fox. With speed and skill that can only be described as polymorphic, Fox sets the atmosphere of the entire show transforming from a Welsh boat captain to an Irish porter then again to a small Southern girl, and then once again to a Quaker choir leader, her accents always pitch perfect, never a moment unfocused or lost. Let me put it this way: if Fox is ever doing a show in New York City, I'm going to see it. She's that good.
If you can still get tickets, get thee to the Irish Arts Center before the week is out. Don't be left on shore when The Cambria weighs anchor.