It's an Irish moment for Philadelphia theater. On Saturday, the Irish Heritage Theatre concluded the run of Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel. On Monday, Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw finished its run at the Lantern Theater. And the Annenberg Center recently welcomed the celebrated Abbey Theatre's rendition of The Plough and the Stars, Sean O'Casey's epic tale of the 1916 Easter Rising and the bloody birth of the Irish Republic.
Then there's Inis Nua ("New Island") Theatre Company, which will re-mix its 2011 hit Dublin by Lamplight, Michael West's play about the launching of the National Theatre Company, done commedia dell'arte style for the Drexel University theater program (Nov. 9-20).
Oliver Franklin, the Honorary British Consul in Philadelphia, says, "We have a vibrant theater community playing traditional Irish classics like Mrs. Warren's Profession and The Plough and The Stars at Annenberg."
"What makes Inis Nua special is that they specialize in the new and the adventurous, playwrights who've only been around for a year or more and are untried," says Franklin, a Philly resident, a Lincoln University and Oxford grad, and recipient of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). "Inis Nua is a testing ground for U.K. playwrights in other markets, not in a commercial sense, but a cultural sense, in that agents come here to see what will fly." In this sense, Philadelphia is, as it was in the '50s and '60s, a tryout town for great new theater. "Inis Nua," Franklin says, "takes the risks."
The Inis Nua braintrust includes artistic director Tom Reing, literary manager Claire Moyer, and general manager Jessica Simkins. Reing says he "founded this company to produce the most exciting contemporary theater from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales."
Along with 13 seasons, 12 American premieres, including three Philly premieres of work by Ireland's Enda Walsh ("the most prominent Irish playwright today," Reing says), he mentions his company's 13 Barrymore nominations and five wins, and how Inis Nua's original Dublin by Lamplight production packed 59E59 Theatres not long after its Philly run.
"In the centenary year of the Easter Rising, I think Lamplight highlights - and possibly irreverently lampoons - the importance a national theater is to national identity," says Reing. All his company's productions, probe the current identity of the United Kingdom and its cultural importance in regard to the theatrical arts. The group also makes sure their work is relevant to its home base, the Philadelphia area. For example, the Philip Ridley play Radiant Vermin, which orbits around issues of property ownership and gentrification, That's an issue in Fishtown, Point Breeze, and London alike."
"With our mission involving cultures with a long tradition of storytelling, Lamplight then echoes Joyce, Wilde, and O'Casey in an amalgamated performance style mixing commedia, Lecoq, and even Kabuki," says Reing.
Moyer, directing Lamplight at Drexel, is excited about teaching that blend of styles to young acting students who will put it all into immediate use. She adds that as a director, this iteration of Lamplight "is like the Muppets doing Chekhov, but more elevated in this amazing style."
In this centenary year of a failed uprising that led to the Republic of Ireland, this Irish moment also commemorates the close connection between Philadelphia and Irish theater, in fact between the Irelands and Philadelphia in general. It's a tie that is deep indeed. Franklin says that "there's a great historical relationship between Belfast and Philadelphia as there was a steamship company in Londonderry that went directly from there to Philly, so that a lot of Irish immigrants came straight to this city. There's a great, close bond."