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James Joyce’s The Dead, A Christmas Play With Music reprised at The Irish Classical Theatre Company.
Only the Irish could come up with a Christmas Play entitled  “THE DEAD”.  And so they have, James Joyce’s THE DEAD , A Christmas Play With Music, with the book by Richard Nelson and music by Shaun Davey, has returned to The Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by ICTC Associate Director Derek Campbell. 
Do not fear, these are not the morbid dead, these are rather visions of warm and lively friends and family, those closest to our own hearts and who so easily come to mind at this time of year, those who, as the Christmas carol says, are “dear to us, who are near to us once again.”   
Director Derek Campbell has reassembled most of the excellent cast from last year’s much loved production of THE DEAD.  Indeed that production was so much loved that this year it is back by “popular demand”, and from the look of it, you are well advised to get tickets early, as it was selling out during last year’s run and promises to do so again. 
James Joyce’s The Dead is a Tony Award winning adaptation of a short story of the same name from Joyce’s series entitled “The Dubliners”.  ICTC Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill describes the story as “three generations come together to celebrate the Christmas Season in music, song, dance, revelry and camaraderie, but as always with Joyce, there are several layers at work … and underneath the surface is a heartrending love story. There is poetry in Joyce’s prose which transforms the everyday into the sublime.”  Well, I could not have said that better myself, so I won’t try. 
Placed at the turn of the twentieth century, this is the Dublin of gaslight and dinner jackets,  ladies’ long gowns, uniformed maids and the clip-clop of horse carriages.  Aunts Julia and Kate Morkan (played by the stupendous duo, Sheila McCarthy and Ellen Horst)  preside over an annual holiday gathering of family and friends, filled with entertainment and the warm memories of thirty years of such gatherings. While the look and manner is distinctly Victorian, the sensibilities are universal. The connections and traditions from family to family, and from generation to generation, create the emotional breeze that sails this ship.  
We recognize the familiar faces, the sharp-tongued cousin, the reliable nephew, his delicate wife, the tipsy family friend and his nervous mother, the professional, the caretaker, the artist and, of course, the beloved aunts – they are all there and but for the flick of an electric light switch and a change of costume, they might just all be right here too – at your own holiday gathering in 2011. 
This is not meant to reduce these wonderful people to mere stereotypes. The reason THE DEAD succeeds so well, especially in this fine production, is because the cast has invested so deeply in their own characters, and beyond that, so rigorously in each other’s characters that the audience instantly recognizes the empathy on stage. Director Campbell might have been satisfied to merely recreate the previous production, but with five new actors on board he had not only the challenge, but the opportunity to explore whole new levels of THE DEAD which, he states, he did not, at first, even know were there. 
One will see the difference. Those who saw The Dead last season, those who thought, like me, there was little room for improvement, will be thrilled with this new production, and amazed at the new depth, confidence and fellowship which defines this cast.  Much of this may be due to the return of most of the old cast, now seasoned and even more comfortable in their roles.
Brian Riggs, for example,  who returns as Gabriel Conroy, the “reliable” nephew who narrates the story and whose memories serve as the platform of the play, is back, but with a new thunder in his voice. He is the touchstone who sparks life into the action which surrounds him. Riggs as the character Gabriel is alternately strong and insecure, but Riggs the actor is confidence itself in his portrayal of Gabriel. Devoted nephew, a loving but guarded husband, it is through Gabriel’s eyes we see the family at its best, and at its least. 


The aforementioned aunts are so convincingly portrayed by veterans Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Horst that their coded winks and nods, the knowing glances, raised eyebrows or shifts in the chair bespeak a secret sibling language at whose meaning the rest of us can only guess. Julia is all warmth and matriarchal elegance, while Kate is a bit more hard edged.  When the touchy subject arises of Julia’s unceremonious dismissal as first soprano in the choir at the Church of the Immaculate Conception (lovingly nicknamed “Adam & Eve’s”) it is Kate who roars like a lioness at the injustice. They are superb.
Meanwhile the newcomers to the cast, such as Chris Kelly as the ‘ner do well family friend, Freddy, add a new twist, and to some degree a new direction and understanding of the character and, thus, the play as a whole.   Mr. Kelly’s Freddy is an accomplished inebriate. He quips and sings and displays some fine, if a bit unsteady dancing skills, (great choreography by Doug Weyand, who also joins the cast this time around, as impresario Mr. Browne.) Despite his intoxication, this Freddy is immediately aware of his faux pas, and the embarrassment and bitter disappointment such transgressions cause his hapless mother, Mrs. Malins (yet another newcomer, the wonderful Pamela Rose Mangus.)  Their unhappiness informs the relative happiness of the others on stage, but in a very rarified and discerning way. 
Perhaps the most luminous of the newcomers, Kelly Meg Brennan as Gabriel’s  wife, Gretta, adds a whole new layer of emotion. Gentle, sympathetic and ultimately quite vulnerable, Ms. Brennan offers a very real and undiscovered facet to the Conroy’s seemingly perfect marriage. It is a painful secret she keeps and the exquisitely genuine manner in which Greta holds, and then releases this secret produces a very rich tableau for Mr. Riggs, who takes full advantage. Together the couple delivers the knock-out which is at the heart of Joyce’s story. We are warm in our cocoons of habit, traditions and relationships, but we can never be certain of the future, never truly certain of even those things we hold most dear.  Life is uncertain, but we are, never-the-less, right to hold tight to those traditions. Perhaps that uncertainty is why we embrace the past with such emotional fervor. 
Returning cast members include John N. Kaczorowski as the musical manservant Michael; Cassie Gorniewicz as the feisty maid Lily: the impressive Matt Witten as tenor Bartell D’Arcy (what great pipes!); Valerie Yawien (lead photo) as the proto-feminist Miss Molly Ivors; and the role of Mary Jane, caretaker of the aunts and matriarch-in-waiting, is portrayed by Wendy Hall.  Finally, Young Julia, who visits the ailing Aunt Julia in a dream is sweetly played by the last of the newcomers, Renee Landigan. Wonderful work all around, a true ensemble.
The music is lively and ric
h.  Particular favorites were “Goldenhair” sung by Ms. Brennan, “D’Arcy’s Aria” sung by Mr. Witten, “Naughty Girls” sung by Mses. McCarthy, Horst and Hall, and “The Three Graces”, sung by Mr. Riggs and the company. A marvelous musical trio sits on stage:  Kaitlyn Beuhlmann plays cello, Jason Bravo, who directed the music, plays piano, and the lovely Mary Ramsey returns to the ICTC stage once more to play violin.  They are wonderful and become the powerful emotional fabric of this production. You are forewarned, keep a fresh handkerchief near.
The Irish deliver the whole package here, with sets by Ron Schwartz, sound by Tom Makar, a striking lighting design by Brian Cavanagh, one which truly illustrates how much good lighting can do to tell a story. Costumes by Kari Drozd and hair and make-up by Susan Drozd complete the picture and beautifully so.
I must confess, I may be particularly susceptible to the charms of THE DEAD.  I suppose in a way it’s an “Irish Thing”, but still, as noted, it is universal too. I think back upon those family gatherings of my own childhood, enchanted Christmases with my six brothers and my parents, holidays which, over the years have multiplied many fold, with three times as many grandchildren and now great-grandchildren in the clan.  
But Joyce’s story evokes an even wider and deeper world than our living memories. I remember our own Great Aunts, elegant ladies who were children when Joyce’s story took place. They were the youngest of ten, a vibrant family with their own stories of high jinx at the local St. Mary’s Church, of holidays and weddings and funerals. The aunts became exemplary teachers, and carried on a life-long correspondence, in  Latin, mind you. They knew the finer points of a Sunday roast chicken, the secret of a muddled old fashioned and the proper way to open champagne. They are long gone now, and even their children are but a surviving few, yet they live on, in their stories, their faith and traditions, even in their jokes and recipes. They live in our memories. They live on in Christmas.
Theatre never ceases to amaze me, a great production can transport us to another time and place where history comes alive. And the truly great authors, like James Joyce, can even transport us to a history which is our very own. 
Don’t miss this second chance to see THE DEAD, you will glad you did.
JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD, A Christmas Play With Music. At The Irish Classical Theatre Company through December 18. 

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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