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New York’s Festival of  Irish Theatre—"Trans-Euro Express" at the Irish Arts Center, and "This is What We Sang" at the Synagogue for the Arts, Manhattan

CThe Festival of Irish Theatre blows into town, and makes its mark
on Manhattan.  Some thirteen off-Broadway theaters and others venues have played host to this month-long event. Of the sixteen Irish plays offered, seven are U.S. premieres and two are world premieres. As we raced about to sample these offerings, we hit upon “This Is What We Sang,” playing downtown at the Synagogue for the Arts, and “Trans-Euro Express” uptown at the Irish Arts Center.

“Trans-Euro Express,” by playwright Gary Duggan, is a light-hearted coming-of-age piece about two Dublin buddies. Each, Ballard (Charlie Kevin) and Gram (Roderick Hill), recovering from a broken relationship, is in the doldrums. Moreover, Ballard is deeply depressed by his office job. He longs to realize his earlier dream—that of a film-maker. Suddenly, they decide to make a video of Gram’s work as a musician. And where else, but on a European trip. Quickly, they are off on a jaunt to Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. The journey is rife with drugs, sex, battles, and ultimately, self-discovery.

The result is a charming 90-minute non-stop ride. The hip dialogue, insightful comments, and quick-sketch characterizations all work together---good fun, but with a thoughtful underpinning. A welcome addition, indeed, to the Festival.

In contrast is the downtown piece—a somber, thoughtful piece at the Synagogue of the Arts. “This is What We Sang” is one of those rare experiences in theater—when the spiritual, the aesthetic, the human are welded together into one reality.

It is the story of the Belfast Jews and takes on the fortunes and misfortunes of one family—fictionalized and in dramatic form. This deeply moving drama covers three generations—from the 1850s, when eastern European Jewish emigrants first arrived in Belfast--to current descendants now in America. Lev leaves Latvia and arrives on English shores, the dupe of the ship’s captain. He believes he has landed in America as planned. But soon, while making the best of his circumstances, he learns that work there is non-existent and opportunities are better in Belfast. Thus he heads to North Ireland and begins a new dynasty. Ultimately the Jewish community will reach its peak in 1964 with over 1500 inhabitants and a new synagogue, (but dwindling to less than 100 today).

As to the production, playwright, company, director and five superb performers are responsible for its success. Kabosh, a Belfast-based company which focuses on site-specific productions, and artistic director Paula McFetridge, commissioned Dublin playwright Gavin Kostick to research the Belfast Jews. Hence this remarkable play.

Memorable performances are offered by Lalor Roddy, Ali White, Jo Donnelly, and Paul Kenned. Alan Burke, unlike the others, Burke is a noted musician who sings his every line. Music, not words, is his contribution. Yet that liturgical music creates exactly the right ambience. We are in a holy place, sharing a holy—yet wholly human—experience.

Each of these two plays, each in its own right, contributes to a new knowledge of the Irish experience, and a new aesthetic statement.

-- Irene Backalenick
September 28, 2010

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