The Philadelphia Inquirer profiles the current fascination with Irish Theatre in Philadelphia

March 17, 2011

With so many Irish plays sprouting this spring on Philadelphia stages, a celebration seemed in order. And, sure enough, a festival was born.

By Toby Zinman

For The Inquirer

Tues. March 15, 2011

Somewhere between the Celtic Twilight and the Celtic Tiger, I first visited Ireland. It was, initially, an English major's love affair with language. (Yeats! Joyce!) And who could resist the charm and friendliness of people who, when invited for a drink, say, "I wouldn't say no" instead of saying "yes," and a post office clerk who asked, "Flyin' or walkin'?" instead of "airmail or surface?"

Needless to say, I'm a sucker for an Irish play.

But Irish theater has changed, just as Ireland has changed. The stage Irishman may have gone the way of the "dear, dirty Dublin" of Ulysses. A line in Mark Doherty's play Trad just about sums things up: "Is that what tradition is? Everyone standing still and facing backwards?"

Vivian Mercier, a prominent Irish literary critic, wrote, "No aspect of life is too sacred to escape the mockery of Irish laughter." Playwrights Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Sebastian Barry, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Mark O'Rowe, Enda Walsh, Abbie Spallen, Mark Doherty, Michael West, and Paul Meade have provided some very bitter and very Irish laughter.

All these authors' works have had Philadelphia productions in recent months, many of them represented onstage more than once. That's a lot of Irish theater.

So when Fran Kumin, who directs the Pew Center's Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, noticed how many Irish plays were scheduled for this spring by local companies - as well as two major imports from Ireland - she decided it was time to celebrate.

Since the Pew Center's goals are both collaboration and the introduction of new work to Philadelphia audiences, she invited the theater people involved to meet. Then Culture Ireland, an Irish government agency, agreed to fund a handsome brochure. And now here we are, in the thick of the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival.

What to make of this torrent of Irish playmaking?

I asked some local experts, not only about the American romance with Irish theater, but why Irish playwrights seem to be in love with monologues, and what theatrical issues arise from the accents, and - well, whatever else seemed interesting.

Tom Reing is artistic director of Inis Nua Theatre Company and of its forthcoming Dublin by Lamplight, by Michael West, which opens in late April. Inis Nua means "new island" in Irish, and the company is dedicated to new plays from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales.

Reing believes that storytelling is at the heart of Irish drama - both the writing and the watching, and thus so many plays use "direct address," in which characters talk to the audience rather than to each other. It's about "the love of a good story. The stories we tell ourselves are the lives we lead."

Jered McClenigan, a Philadelphia actor who frequently performs in Irish plays, including Lantern Theatre's recent production of Martin McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara, added that direct address requires "a much more actively engaged audience for the story to be understood. You really need to do some active listening. It's a cross between watching a play and reading a book - you are engaged by the characters and their situation, and the playwright leaves it up to you to visualize their locations, interactions - indeed their entire surrounding worlds."

Harriet Power, director of Sebastian Barry's The Pride of Parnell Street, which will open later this month at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, adds that storytelling is "so central, so crucial to Irish culture that it feels natural and necessary to many Irish playwrights. A language-based culture can probably handle these plays' typical lack of visual spectacle more comfortably than our image-centered, visual-overload American culture."

An exception is the work of Martin McDonagh, which is dominating local stages - last month's A Skull in Connemara, the just-ended Lieutenant of Inishmore by Theatre Exile, and The Cripple of Inishmaan, Druid Theatre's touring production at Annenberg in May.

McDonagh's plays are frequently likened to the wild, grisly hilarity of Quentin Tarantino's films - very visual, and characterized by dialogue rather than monologue. Said Reing, "I think McDonagh's in a class all by himself," but he added, "Many of my Irish playwright friends think he does too much 'Paddywhackery,' meaning too many stupid or ruthless Irish characters."

In an e-mail, Jared Delaney, actor and associate artistic director of Inis Nua, offered a personal observation on the appeal of Irish drama: "More than 75 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The entire population of Ireland is only 4 million. That culture has permeated American thinking, from St. Patrick's Day Parades across the country to our fascination with the Kennedys.

"Certainly my family (which is Irish on both sides as far back as I can remember) is proof of that. We would gather around on the Fourth of July and sing every George M. Cohan song in the book."

Accents are always a production issue, especially since so many plays deal with either rural or working-class characters. Harriet Power discussed this with Sebastian Barry (best known for The Steward of Christendom), who warned her, "If you are absolutely accurate with the North Dublin blue-collar accent, no one will understand a word." So Power is using a dialect coach to "make it comprehensible while honoring its cadences and sounds" in The Pride of Parnell Street.

McClenigan added this: "As far as accents go: I like my dialects, and I like them thick. As a performer I always strive for accuracy and authenticity with language, dialect and text; if you listen to authentic dialects they are full of slurs and inaccuracies, which doesn't always translate well to the stage. Projection of the voice often hampers precise and thick accents . . . which is perhaps why accurate dialects seem to work better in film than theater."

While they may present challenges, Irish plays also possess great charm, which Delaney summed up nicely:

"For an actor, honestly, they're just fun to do. It's great language to chew on, usually with great theatricality behind it. Dublin by Lamplight has six actors playing more than 40 roles, in heavy, commedia-like makeup, with no set or props, only words and lights.

"The Irish (and here's where I fall into the stereotype) like to be enchanted, whether it's through grim violence or absurd word games or ghost stories. As an actor and an audience member, that's what I want too."