It is 1904, and in strife-torn Dublin a new national theater company is preparing to debut a play with revolutionary resonance. With a royal visit imminent, the theater flirts with financial disaster, the actors flirt with one another, and violence and upheaval threaten, offstage and on.
Michael West's Dublin by Lamplight is a coproduction of the Inis Nua Theatre Company and Drexel University's Mandell Professionals in Residence Project. The show is a revival of Inis Nua's well-received 2011 production, also directed by the company's artistic director, Tom Reing. Mike Dees reprises the role of Martyn, an effeminate actor reminiscent of Oscar Wilde.
Fair warning: If you're looking for an emotionally involving, naturalistic take on the early 20th-century stirrings of Irish nationalism or the birth of the Abbey Theatre, this isn't it.
What West, Reing, and a versatile cast of four Drexel students and two theater pros offer is a highly stylized mash-up of theatrical techniques, including vaudeville, story theatre, Commedia dell' arte, mime, and kabuki. Continuous piano underscoring, by composer John Lionarons, lends the air of a 1920s silent movie - when it doesn't call to mind the crudeness of a Punch and Judy show.
Six actors whirl through 40 characters, a feat in itself. Each character wears clownish, white-face makeup (the designer, Maggie Baker, also did the costumes). All narrate their actions - that's the story theatre part - and exaggerate their gestures and vocal expressions.
The play itself can be heavy-handed and silly, a succession of caricatures and obvious plot twists that quickly become tedious. And the extreme stylization only underlines its faults.
If there is a highlight, it is the comically disjointed rendering of The Wooing of Emer, the Irish folktale-inspired play-within-the-play. As the characters' real-life romances and rivalries intersect with their stage portrayals, the result is pure, if not perfectly rendered, farce. Reing's blocking too often gives us only the characters' backs. But the larger point seems clear: Ireland's fortunes, like those of the new theater, will be at the mercy of human bumbling.
It's a credit to Drexel's student performers that they're not easily distinguishable from the pros. The standout is Joey Teti, a sophomore who plays the theater producer Willy Hayes with astonishing physical expressiveness. Freshman Drew Sipos soulfully conveys the sadness of the lovelorn Jimmy Finnegan, spurned by the chambermaid-turned-actress Maggie (Marlyn Logue). Freshman Jacob Kemp, as the revolutionary Frank Hayes, and Rachel Brodeur, as the benefactor, actress, and radical Eva St. John, round out the cast.
Meghan Jones' simple two-level set, representing the theater, a police station, a morgue, and other locations, is bedecked with bunting in anticipation of the royal visit. Dublin assumes a spectral quality via Andrew Cowles' dramatic lighting, which cloaks the city in mist and spotlights the characters in moments of crisis.