The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.

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Courage, poetry & resilience. Final words & accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916

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Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Whenever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Easter 1916, by W.B. Yeats

The Toronto Irish Players, as part of their commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Irish Rising, presented A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916, an evening of readings and music, assembled and directed by Lucy Brennan, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage last night.

The evening began with the Irish Proclamation of Independence, read at the top of the stairs near the entrance of the Mainstage before we were invited to enter and take our seats. What followed was a multimedia tribute of 1916 Rising film footage and photographs, and readings of words written by the 16, and accounts from their family, loved ones, attending priests and brothers in arms. All of this interspersed with a cappella music breaks, sung by a single male voice: Mise Eire (Sean Ó Riada), The Bold Fenian Men (Peadar Kearny), The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore) and A Nation Once Again (Thomas Davis); and including poetry by W.B. Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, as well as an introductory composition by director Lucy Brennan, and verbatim text of the last words and meetings in Kilmainham Jail, taken from Last Words.

With its dramatic readings of quotes, statements, and extracts from letters and speeches by and about the 16 leaders and executed rebels of the 1916 Irish Rising, A Terrible Beauty gives us a glimpse into the lives and dreams of those who were, in the words of the Proclamation (read on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin by Patrick Pearse on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916) fighting for an Ireland that “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and [which] declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.”

The 16 leaders and executed rebels included in the evening’s readings included the seven signatories of the Proclamation (Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas James Clarke, James Connolly, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett) and nine other executed leaders (Roger Casement, Con Colbert, Edward Daly, Seán Heuston, Thomas Kent, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Michael O’Hanranhan and William Pearse).

The ensemble did a lovely job with these deeply moving – at times tender, fierce and poetic – final words and first-hand accounts. The humanity and struggles of these men, and the sorrow of their family and those near to them coming to life on stage; the audience rapt in remembrance, responding with sounds of recognition, dismay, the occasional chuckle, and even humming or singing along with the songs. Kudos to the cast, in order of appearance (in some cases, playing multiple roles): Mark Whelan, Alan King, Nora Rafferty, Sheila DeCuyper, David Mackett, Jean Ireton, Danny Sullivan, James Phelan, Catherina Maughan, Alan Hunt, Mairead Clancy, Lucy Brennan, Davis Tyrell and Mark Hill. And thanks to the Toronto Irish Players and Lucy Brennan for the comprehensive and informative program notes.

Courage, poetry and resilience. Final words and accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916.

A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916 was a one-night only event. You can catch the Toronto Irish Players as they continue their run of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until Nov 5.

You can keep up with the Toronto Irish Players on Twitter and Facebook.

Movie set shenanigans get a dose of harsh reality in sharply funny, heartbreaking & hopeful Stones in His Pockets

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Stephen Farrell & Mark Whelan in Stones in His Pockets – photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

The Irish Stage Company opened its inaugural production in the Alumnae Theatre Studio last week: Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets, directed by James Barrett. They’ve been playing to packed houses so far – and last night’s house was sold out.

Stones in His Pockets is a movie shoot within a play. A small farming town in County Kerry becomes the location for the Hollywood film The Quiet Valley, with many of the townspeople employed as extras. A tragicomedy, the play is a both a satirical poke at the romantic American view of Ireland and a look at the harsh realities of a small Irish town, where a dying way of life is being used as the nostalgic backdrop for a big-budget movie. The resulting film shoot environment is plastic and careless, its sincerity put on like a costume, and with an ever watchful eye on the bottom line.

A fast-paced two-hander, actors/producers Mark Whelan and Stephen Farrell are masterful performers, playing a total of 15 characters of varying ages, genders and roles within the film production, the story anchored by extras Jake Quinn (Farrell) and Charlie Conlon (Whelan). Each character is executed with detailed physicality and specific vocal quality, with a bare minimum of costume changes (the removal of a hat or vest), the two actors turning on a dime as they shift from one character to another. And they cut a fine rug as well.

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Stephen Farrell & Mark Whelan in Stones in His Pockets – photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Charlie (Whelan), an out of towner and former business owner who lost his video store and his girlfriend to a corporate chain outfit, is delighted to be there earning 40 quid a day and free meals. Ever the optimist, he’s got a film script in his pocket that he’s dying to get into the hands of one of the production folks. Jake (Farrell) is more the wry skeptic, taking a cooler pragmatic view of life on set. Recently returned from a failed attempt at life in the U.S., he’s wary of the bitch goddess taking up residence in a place he cares about, among people he loves, many of whom are relatives. And, of course, there’s always more to someone’s story than what you see on the surface. While Charlie is consciously working hard to maintain a positive outlook after coming through past troubles of his own, Jake is adrift; lost and unsure of what to do about his life and his young cousin Sean (also played by Farrell), a troubled and trouble-making teen who once had big dreams of his own and is now addicted to drugs.

This highly entertaining and poignant cast of characters also includes the film’s female lead, Caroline Giovanni (played with fragile, coquettish femininity by Whelan), a delicate, sensual and jaded starlet who struggles with the Irish dialect under the tutelage of her patient and supportive coach John (Farrell). Other film production folk include the ever put-upon, fed up, on the edge of breakdown AD Simon (Whelan); the youthful, driven and eye-rolling AD Aislinn (Farrell); and the aloof, professional task master, director Clem (Whelan). Other characters of note include Mickey Riordan (Farrell), a Puck-like old fella with a glint in his eye, famous in that he’s the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man; Finn (Whelan), Jake’s soft-spoken, turtle-like cousin; and Jock (Whelan), Caroline’s brick shit house, no-nonsense body guard who more than lives up to his name.

While the hopes and dreams of struggling people are being used and manipulated for the good of the production machine, and with tragic results, Stones in His Pockets is not without hope. The one thing that isn’t romanticized about the Irish is the resilience of a people who are genuine, hard-working and imaginative at heart– and who like a good story.

With shouts to sound designer Angus Barlow for the sweeping, romantic Irish soundtrack and jaunty jigs; the Irish Stage Company for its minimalist, but highly effective set and costume design; and to stage manager Sarah Barton for looking after our boys on stage, and reminding the audience to mind the steps, and the stones on set, as we make our way up into the Studio.

Movie set shenanigans get a dose of harsh reality in the sharply funny, heartbreaking and hopeful Stones in His Pockets.

Stones in His Pockets continues at Alumnae Theatre until Dec 12; this is a very popular production, so advance booking online is strongly recommended.

You can find the Irish Stage Company on Twitter and Stones in His Pockets on Facebook.

Department of corrections: Photo credit originally ascribed to Rob Trick; it’s actually Kathryn Hollinrake. The post has been revised accordingly.

Liberty at any cost – hardened life choices in Toronto Irish Players’ Big Maggie

bigmaggie1Saw another marvelous Toronto Irish Players (TIP) production yesterday afternoon – this time, John B. Keane’s Big Maggie, directed by Harvey Levkoe, on now at Alumnae Theatre.

Big Maggie is set in 1960s rural Ireland, where recently widowed Maggie Polpin (Janice Hansen) is delighted at her newfound freedom from a philandering lout of a husband – and doesn’t care who knows it. Her four young adult children, each in various stages of grief, are disappointed when mum takes control of the family farm and general store, not receiving their expected share of the business – and are forced into choosing her way or the highway. For Maggie, her singular goal is to live free and secure, with no one to answer to or for but herself. And she is not above making some ruthless, calculated choices to get there.

Levkoe has a fine cast for Big Maggie, with some particular stand-outs. Janice Hansen gives an outstanding performance as Maggie, the complex family matriarch, full of anger, ambition, desire and unstoppable drive. Maggie has a sharp wit and can be darkly funny, but is also so very lonely – and by choice. Lovely turns from the actors playing the Polpin kids: Ben Clifford as the oldest brother Maurice, struggling to come to a compromise with his mother so he can have a life of his own; Kyrah Harder’s Gert, the youngest daughter and “good girl” of the family, dreams still intact, and longing for her mother’s love and approval; Conor Murphy as the impetuous firebrand youngest brother Mick; and Kate Sheridan as “bad girl” Katie, strong-willed and driven, but no match for her mother. Stephen Flett was a delight, providing comic relief as Byrne, the cemetery monument sculptor and hopeful bachelor. Damien Gulde was very effective as the charming playboy travelling sales rep Teddy; and Rebecca Liddiard gave a strong, layered performance as Maurice’s sweetheart, balancing the introvert/extrovert and mild/fierce sides of Mary.

Shouts to designer Wayne Cardinalli, and the construction and dressing teams, for a beautifully rendered, detailed and practical set that drew us into the Polpin’s world.

Liberty at any cost. In the end, Maggie, with her life-hardened choices, is as much a victim of time, place and circumstance as those around her are victims of her premeditated cruelty – especially her children.

Big Maggie continues its run on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage – until March 8. I strongly recommend you reserve in advance – this past weekend’s performances were sold out.

In the meantime, check out the Big Maggie backstage goings-on via interviews and production photos on the TIP blog, by writer/journalist/blogger Jennifer Hough.