Review: ‘Leper + Chip’ at Inis Nua Theatre Company

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The goal of Inis Nua Theatre Company is to “tell the story.” In its American premiere of Irish playwright Lee Coffey’s Leper + Chip we get not only the story, but the big picture. As with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the boy-meets-girl star-crossed-lovers romance is one young couple’s personal story, told within the much broader socio-economic narrative of the pressures of growing up amidst the hardship and turmoil of their city and the burden of familial dysfunction.

Katie Stahl and Liam Mulshine. Photo by Katie Reing.

Katie Stahl and Liam Mulshine. Photo by Katie Reing.

Set in present-day inner-city Dublin, the narrative unfolds in the titular characters’ alternating direct-address monologues (an affecting format also used in the company’s fall production of Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin). Their mutual story of violence, crime, alcoholism, and abuse is more than anyone should have to bear, especially anyone so young. Filled with dark humor, coarse language, explosive rage, and heartbreaking pathos, we come to know them and to sympathize with their plight, as they give their individual perspectives on how they met, how their rocky relationship developed, and what they found in each other that they’d never experienced before, when even sex was about aggression, manipulation, and control, not love.

Director Tom Reing brings his signature balance of acerbic wit, insightful sensitivity, and emotional appeal to the intimate two-hander, with a rapid-fire delivery that captures the characters’ youthful energy, and in-the-round staging that brings the actors up close and personal, while making frequent direct eye contact with the audience, so that we can’t help but respond to them. Liam Mulshine as Leper and Katie Stahl as Chip are nothing short of remarkable in their flawless execution of the hefty script, thoroughly believable portrayal of the gritty pair, imitations of the other troubled characters in their story (his send-up of a 50-something pick-up for a one-night stand is especially caustic), and thick Irish accents (with dialect coaching by Leonard Kelly). We see the anger and despair in their crass bravado, then the softening towards each other and themselves, as they shed their mean-spirited nicknames, reveal their true identities, and turn their hostility into understanding, tenderness, and love, all within the frenetic 36 hours since they met. These are two emerging talents to watch.

Katie Stahl and Liam Mulshine. Photo by Katie Reing.

Katie Stahl and Liam Mulshine. Photo by Katie Reing.

Meghan Jones’ simple set is smartly inspired by an Irish city street crossing, with explicit warnings to “Look right” and “Look left” – reminders of the constant peril in which these urban youths live and their need to be ever-vigilant. Lighting by Shon Causer changes with the times of day, highlights the characters as they speak, and responds with sudden flashes to the momentous events in their story, signaled by the protagonists’ sudden dramatic handclaps. Though some passages of the monologues are at times difficult to hear when the actors turn away, sound by Zachary McKenna underscores the poetic rhythm of Coffey’s language with effective background music. Everyday streetwear by Costume Designer Rebecca Kanach, including sneakers and hoodies, are age-appropriate and character-defining.

Inis Nua’s poignant production of Leper + Chip tells the story with heart, humor, guts, and passion, in the most direct and engaging way – through empathetic acting and direction, and a supportive artistic design.

Running time: 65 minutes, without intermission.

Leper + Chip plays through Sunday, March 5, 2017, presented by Inis Nua Theatre Company, performing at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake – 305 South Hicks Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 454-9776, or purchase them online.

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