If the notion of compressing 900 years of Irish mythology into a single two-hour show sounds like a lot to take on, that’s because it is.
In fact, tackling the entire pantheon of Irish legend—which is as complicated as its Greek counterpart—is an idea of such encyclopedic proportions that only a group of passionate idealists would even think of mounting such a production.
Fortunately, the gang at 4615 Theatre is undaunted by such considerations. Under the leadership of Jordan Friend, the company’s artistic director, the group—now into its third season—has assembled a multi-media saga called The Infinite Tales. The result, billed as a world premiere, opened this week at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
The show—adapted from a variety of sources by Gregory Keng Strasser and directed by him—is a collection of Celtic legends that is often childlike in its innocence.
This is not surprising, considering that the protagonists are four children who have been turned into swans. Cursed by a cruel stepmother, the kids fly around through the centuries, waiting for the curse to wear off. Their leader is a bossy big sister.
Some of the tales are deliciously funny—as when the children, appearing to be swans, encounter a talking deer with Christmas lights on its antlers. Others are bewildering. (Part of the confusion stems from the fact that there are nine talented actors playing dozens of roles, so it is not always clear who is who or what century we happen to have landed in.)
But the Irish are great storytellers, and this compendium of tales—while occasionally lacking coherence—makes up for its confusion with some wonderful performances.
The female roles are the juiciest. My favorite, I confess, is the stepmother, who—underneath her demonic red hair—is truly evil. Played by a gloriously malevolent Amber A. Gibson, this wand-waving witch has a complicated past, which may explain her anti-social behavior.
A second favorite is Melissa Carter, who plays a pale princess locked in a tower as well as a number of other roles, including the aforementioned frightened deer. She reminds me of the character in a painting by Henri Rousseau. She is also very funny.
The third of the three leading ladies is Jordana Hernandez, the big sister who—when not trying to protect or discipline her brothers—is the official story-teller.
The three leading male characters are played by Steve Lebens—first, as a benevolent king, then as a mean consort—and two cohorts, whose roles are not always clear.
While they could not be more different in appearance, the two—Shaquille Stewart and DeJeanette Horne—both appear to be prophets of an earlier time, sent to guide the swan-children home. Both command the stage with breathtaking authority.
Of the “lost boys,” all three—played by Emily Sucher, Niusha Nawab and Seth Rosenke—are endearing.
Willow Watson has created an ingenious set design consisting of stacks of old steamer trunks, briefcases, and luggage piled up on either side of the stage. The characters alternate between sitting on the trunks and extracting one or two cases whenever setting off on a journey.
The costumes, designed by Jeanette Christensen, are fabulous. All the male characters wear vests over modern dress shirts, creating a vaguely Renaissance look, while the wicked witch, who sometimes pretends to be queen, wears a beautiful gown underneath a royal cape. Cloaks—ranging from the velvet of royalty to the rags of hermits and prophets—adorn all the adult men.
Images of lakes and sky are projected onto a screen at the rear, while shadows, seen behind a scrim, create a dream-like sense of distortion and loss. (Kelley Rowan is the scenic artist.)
Lighting and sound design—by Dean Leong and producer Jordan Friend—add considerably to the sense of magic that infuses the mythic tales.
Friend, who enjoys breaking the boundaries that often constrain live theater, has pulled together many of the elements of dreams, which are what these myths are made of.
The play, however, is overly ambitious. It’s way too long and complicated for most audiences, and especially for the so-called ‘family audiences’ for which it seems designed.
That’s unfortunate, since The Infinite Tales would, if reworked, make a wonderful 45-minute play for children.
As currently staged, however, it’s a good chance to see a team of top-notch performers literally spread their wings to produce a highly unusual work in progress.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission.
Melissa Carter (Dierdre)
Jordana Hernandez (Finnoughla)
Niusha Nawab (Aed)
Emily Sucher (Conn)
Amber Gibson (Aoife)
Steve Lebens (King Lir)
Seth Rosenke (Fiachra)
Shaquille Stewart (Afraic)
DeJeanette Horne (Oisin)
Adaptation and direction: Gregory Keng Strasser
Scenic design: Willow Watson
Costume design: Jeanette Christensen
Lighting design: Dean Leong
Puppets: Matthew Pauli
Original music and sound: Jordan Friend
Production stage manager: Paola Vanessa Losada
Associate director and dramaturg: Aria Velz