The founding of The Abbey Theatre in 1904 was one of the pivotal events in Irish history. The Abbey championed the perspective of Irish playwrights and actors, and its founding was the moment that the slow-aborning Irish independence movement began to find its own voice and identity. Michael West’s Dublin by Lamplight tells the story of the Abbey’s founding.
Well… kind of.
For one thing, the Abbey is never mentioned by name; characters refer to the place as “The Irish National Theatre of Ireland.” And the founders are fictionalized and renamed; for instance, the producer/playwright Edward Martyn is called Martyn Wallace here.
But the main difference between real life and Dublin by Lamplight is a stylistic one. While West illustrates the grime and poverty that was Ireland’s lot at the time, he also nods to older theatrical traditions by having all the actors perform in garish, white, clown-like makeup, with exaggerated features and expressions painted on the actors’ faces. It’s an example of commedia dell’arte, the 16th century Italian performance tradition. (Hedgerow Theatre’s The Servant of Two Masters earlier this year was also performed in the commedia style, although the actors in that production used masks rather than makeup.)
But it’s not just the physical look of Dublin by Lamplight that follows the customs of commedia – the performances do, too. For instance, the words the actors speak alternate between first person dialogue and third person narration. And when the actors deliver their lines, they turn their heads to speak directly to the audience; when they’re finished speaking, they turn back to their scene partners. This continues throughout the play, so there’s a lot of pivoting going on, and the actors display remarkable control.
West uses commedia dell’arte to place the Abbey in historical context: just as the Italian contributions to dramatic art were revolutionary in the 16th century, so Ireland’s more naturalistic contributions were revolutionary in the 20th.
Dublin by Lamplight also channels the sentimental popular entertainment of the early 20th century. Musical Director/Composer John Lionarons sits at a piano on the side of the stage, playing Irish ballads and English music hall songs in a parlor music style full of cascading arpeggios. And when plucky young actor Jimmy (Drew Sipos) is rejected by his would-be sweetheart, he chokes back tears while singing a weepy, John McCormack-style ballad.
The attention to detail in Inis Nua’s production of Dublin by Lamplight – a revival of a production first staged in 2011 – is extraordinary. Not only is Maggie Baker’s makeup design striking, but her clothing design demonstrates the sharp class differences of the Edwardian era. Meghan Jones’ set design resembles a jewel box theatre, full of polished wooden surfaces. And Andrew Cowles’ lighting adds to the authenticity, as does a good supply of stage fog.
Yet despite the care lavished on Dublin by Lamplight, the play isn’t completely successful. The tone of West’s script is wildly inconsistent.
It begins as a raucous comedy: the fledgling theater is a shoestring operation, and on its opening day, just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Haughty leading lady Eva (Rachel Brodeur) is arrested in a protest against the English King, who is visiting Dublin on this day. Costume woman Maggie (Marlyn Logue) fills in for Eva, and a rowdy (and quite funny) conflict between the two women results. Meanwhile, actor Frank (Jacob Kemp) gets to the theater late too; his brother Willy (Joey Teti) has a run-in with some hooligans; and the effete playwright Martyn (Mike Dees) frets over every complication.
This early section is fascinating and fun. Director Tom Reing’s fast-paced, meticulous production zips by. And the performances are terrific, with a precise yet playful quality that brings a smile. All the actors play multiple characters, and their split-second transformations are impressive.
But the first part of the show can be difficult to follow, even for those who know their Irish history. For instance, the play-within-a-play the troupe is performing is called The Wooing of Emer, and there’s much discussion of characters named Emer and Cú Chulainn. But if you don’t know that these are characters from Irish mythology, you’ll be at sea. The play doesn’t tell us anything about them, and the brief glossary in the program doesn’t even mention them.
Then, just after the story reaches its comic climax, a tragedy occurs. And suddenly Dublin by Lamplight turns into an examination of the persecution the Irish Republican movement faced at the hands of the brutal British government. It’s a subject that needs to be examined, but the heaviness of this final portion doesn’t gibe with the lightness that came earlier.
Still, West’s play pulls off quite a trick: it parodies the roots of Irish drama without mocking the form itself. It examines the history of theatre in a uniquely theatrical way. And Reing and his crew have created a rich, vivid environment that smoothly blends a realistic setting with an arch, embellished performance style.
Dublin by Lamplight is a rewarding experience that’s worth seeing – mainly because it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before!
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Dublin by Lamplight plays through November 20, 2016 at Inis Nua Theatre Company, performing at The Mandell Theater at Drexel University – 3250-60 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. The production is produced in partnership with Drexel University’s Mandell Professionals in Residence Project (MPiRP). For tickets, call the box office at (215) 454-9776, or purchase them online.
A Preview of Inis Nua Theatre Company’s ‘Dublin by Lamplight’ with Director Tom Reing by Deb Miller.