Friday, March 11, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Arrah-na-Pogue

We've been spending a lot of time recently going to Off Off Broadway shows in the East and West Villages (Iphigenia at Aulis, Besharet, The Hallway Trilogy) but on Friday we traveled in the opposite direction - all the way up to The Storm Theatre at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame near Columbia University to attend a performance of Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss) Or, the Wicklow Wedding.  And we're really glad that we did.  This was one of the best shows we've seen in a while.

Arrah-na-Pogue, written by Dion Boucicault in 1865, is a wonderfully uplifting entertainment suitable for the entire family that is too infrequently staged in America and deserves to be better known in this country. A joyous, adventurous, romantic Irish comedy-drama, it has all the ingredients one seeks in the theatre and too seldom finds: charming tales of love (requited and unrequited), romance, marriage, honor, fidelity and betrayal; swashbuckling escapades; and causes and relationships that both men and women are willing to die for. It is Damon and Pythias, Robin Hood, Casablanca and King Arthur, all rolled into one, set during the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, expressed in the most lyrical language that the Irish seem to have such a flair for, and punctuated at just the right moments by a rollicking performance of an Irish step dance by Jennie McGuinness and a lovely rendition of a “The Wearing of the Green” by Michelle Kafel.

Christine Bullen and Jonathan Blakeley.  Photo by Michael Abrams Photography

Now being presented by the Storm Theatre at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame (a very well-designed thrust-stage theatre in the church’s basement), the play centers around Arrah Meelish (Nicola Murphy), nick-named Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss) for the kiss she once bestowed upon her sweetheart, Shaun the Post (Phil Mills). Unbeknownst to him, Arrah has been providing sanctuary to Beamish Mac Coul (Jonathan Blakeley), a leader of the Rebellion who is attempting to escape from Ireland with his sweetheart, Fanny Power (Christine Bullen). When Michael Feeny (Paul Nugent), a traitorous, disreputable process server, happens upon Beamish’s concealment by Arrah and betrays them both to the British authorities, all hell breaks loose. Beamish escapes, Arrah is questioned, Fanny misconstrues Beamish’s relationship with Arrah, Shaun rises to the occasion, and Colonel Bagenal O’Grady (Ted McGuinness), who also is in love with Fanny, seeks everyone’s salvation with the assistance of the British secretary (Spencer Aste)

The play’s success is more a function of the script itself than anything else: it is well written, charmingly plotted (albeit a bit hokey, to be sure), and just a great deal of fun. But having said that, credit must also go to the director, Peter Dobbins, who used the theatre’s space in the most imaginative fashion. The entire cast also does a terrific job, especially Murphy and Mills, as the most naive and devoted of lovers who bring not only passion but also comedy to their relationship; Bullen and Blakely, whose more realistic take on life provides a fine contrast to that of Murphy and Mills; McGuinness, whose expression of paternalistic compassion and selflessness is finely tuned; Aste, whose deftly wry depiction of the secretary is just splendid; and Joie Bauer who plays to perfection the role of Major Coffin, a cold-hearted British Officer.

But the most outstanding performance of all is that provided by Nugent who plays the role of the villain, Michael Feeny as if he were a sleazy, serpentine leprechaun-ish creature. He is perfect as the character you love to hate and the production wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without him.

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