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Woman and Scarecrow
May 7 – 31, 2009
Thursday – Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm
Reviewed May 8 by David Siegel

t A Potomac Stages Pick for a challenging, fearless debate over a wasted life in which Jennifer Mendenhall is simply a dazzling.
Running Time 2:15 – one intermission
Tickets $20

Click here to buy the script

There is no hiding in this fearlessly accomplished evening crammed full with debates about a life not so well-lived as death approaches. It is no overstatement to suggest that Woman and Scarecrow is a most challenging work by Marina Carr … but quickly all eyes lock on Jennifer Mendenhall as the central character who is in such close proximity to the audience concentrating on her every nuanced movement and vivid emotion. This is theater not of spectacle but of meaning, of lyrical words and witty good humor rather than volume and trickery. Even voiceless moments leave an enduring mark, with unspoken gestures that grip; the silent curving of a mouth, an exasperated soundless sigh, the unvoiced fear emanating from eyes, the stillness of moments after a flurry of unforgiving chatter. As for the journey itself, it is of an unnamed Woman (Mendenhall) on her deathbed as she argues with herself and another woman named Scarecrow who cannot be seen by others. Perhaps Scarecrow is an alter-ego, or just a figment of one’s imagination in the final moments of life while on pain-numbing meds, but no matter. This is a play that requires the most confident of actors if it is to have a chance of earning the audience’s interest. Director Des Kennedy has those actors; most especially Jennifer Mendenhall as the Woman at the center of it all. She is on fire with a dazzling presence from the moment lights are up. She shows a remarkable ability to summon up and share herself thoroughly with the audience, not just her own inner workings, but life with a cheating husband and eight children. She is stunning as she brings forth all that can be behind a character who has lived a narrow life, speaks of never feeling loved, of not being “good to herself” and who is “baffled by happiness.” It is utterly fascinating as Mendenhall moves from one sentiment to another and from one strident comment to the next as she tries to make sense of her bitterly lived life, almost always in the confines of bed. Yet, for all the lyricism and clever wit, the final moments are a messy affair.

Storyline: Taking place in Ireland, part horror story, part philosophical musing on life, the play starts and ends at the deathbed of an unnamed Woman. She is joined by less than appealing characters, including her husband, who accompanies her on her final journey which is led by “the Scarecrow,” a woman who is more than she seems.

Marina Carr (b 1964) is one of Ireland’s more prolific current playwrights. With Woman and Scarecrow (2006) she brings in all that an audience might expect including both religious and existential ramblings on the matter of how to live. She concentrates on a woman who believes that "the world has not yielded all I expected.” Carr’s works have been produced at The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Abby Theatre. Here in the Potomac Region, Solas Nua produced her Portia Coughlan and The Mai. The director of this American premiere is 27 year old Des Kennedy from Belfast who directed Scenes From the Big Picture for Solas Nua. With his casting, and the work of his technical artisans, he has constructed not a tedious gnashing-of-teeth melodrama, but a fine, insightful piece of strong sentiment. The close-in set, with most actions taking place on a bed or surrounding it, lets the audience feel as if they are interlopers. There is one bite of showy auditory flair; the presence of something within a large wardrobe.

Nanna Ingvarsson (Scarecrow) is arresting; her full lips and strong features and constant activity such a contrast to the thin lipped and slighter, bed-ridden Mendenhall. Ingvarsson’s mere presence gives a strength to the production as she feverishly struggles with Mendenhall … pushing her to not go soft. When the final black-out draws near, her brutal actions, wicked appearance and the ensuing carnage do not seem out of the realm of possibility at all. Rena Cherry Brown has an almost cameo appearances in each of the acts, but is critical to give voice and image to the more tradition-bound ways of life with the necessity of making peace with God and those being left behind before taking one’s final breath. Brian Hemmingsen is the cheating, dishonest husband. He physically dominates and yet possesses a fascinating ability to grow smaller when he cuddles his wife on her bed giving a taste that perhaps there was intimacy between the two even with all their philandering. The caresses he receives when curled up in Mendenhall’s arms have real feelings to them, as we can watch his eye lids flutter.

The Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint is a compact setting and for this production it is developed into a bedroom with bed, wardrobe, small chest, outlined by wintery twigs and branches unfettered by color or leaves. The lighting design highlights the moodiness of the piece. Faces are either aglow or softy focused until the denouement when all eyes become transfixed upon the struggles before them. The dark, severe outfits and make-up worn by Cherry Brown are especially provoking when set against Mendenhall’s pale skin and bedclothes and the creamy body hugging wear of Ingvarrson.

Written by Marina Carr. Directed by Des Kennedy. Design: Lynly Saunders (set and costumes) Marianne Meadows (lights) David Crandall (sound) Dan Brick (photography) Joe Dempsey (stage manager). Cast: Rena Cherry Brown, Brian Hemmingsen, Nanna Ingvarsson, Jennifer Mendenhall.

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February 26 - March 22, 2009
Thursday - Saturday at 8 pm
Sunday at 3 pm
Reviewed February 28 by David Siegel

A well conjured Irish play of worn out dreamers
Running Time: 2:15 minutes - one intermission
Tickets $20
Click here to buy the script

Unforgiving, hard-bitten lives of the young and worn-down dreaming of rescue is theater that might not be expected to reach into your heart and pull you to it. Forget that first instinct, for this is another small treasure from the ever venturesome Solas Nua that will, for those so disposed, grab and squeeze in its tight embrace. Abbie Spallen’s play is a merciless … almost scalding of lungs burning with its angst. The “tarnished-lives” dialogue can be sparkling and the almost tender direction of Linda Murray brings the production out from under the maudlin and mundane. The language is most undeniably earthy and for some, certainly startling when it comes to the forceful and regular use of the word c*nt. But in Spallen’s womanly word-work the word fits and has genuine purpose. Casting is critical in this three character production and the two women are first rate. Madeleine Carr as the young woman (Pumpgirl) caught between a yearning for the husband of Stephanie Roswell and the sense of the world that she is just a piece of lesbian trash to be mocked and worse. These two are heady with deep disclosures about themselves and the ability to give physical meaning to torment, anguish and sorrow. Dan Brick finds his own way to bear witness to his fears as the husband with little else to live for beyond week-end bravado that turns to dust during the week. All takes place in a small arena-style setting with three actors at a short arm’s length from you; so close you want to reach out to gently caress an arm with affection. This is an evening of admirable unvarnished, unforgiving connections with the audience, if the audience wants it so.

Storyline: The humors and horrors of three lives set in small town Ireland; a husband named “No helmet” Hammy with a dead-end job who races stock cars on the weekend, his unhappy, over-burdened wife, Sinead, wanting to be desired and touched as well as Pumpgirl, who works in a garage changing oil and is smitten with Hammy. The three share their unspoken thoughts and darkest desires.

Abbie Spallen, entering her fourth decade of life, has several plays published. Pumpgirl was a co-winner of the 2006-07 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for best play written in English by a woman. It debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006 and was produced by New York’s Manhattan Theater Club in December 2007. It received its Irish premiere in Belfast in September 2008 and then toured Ireland. Spallen has sheer small scale authority as a playwright with a gorgeous ear and a vocabulary for the usually unnoticed in life. She gives deep meaning to their desire to be loved and caresses and not ignored. She writes of being touched, not so much as a physical sexual act, but the need for a more sensual quiet feel like holding the hand of one you love without speaking. "Deftly" is the word for Murray’s direction. She has turned a script that too easily could be a mawkish weepy talkfest without movement with a cast frozen in chairs into a moving, emotive affair, a choreographed dance that visualizes small movements with well-selected music underneath. In fact, this production really is a dancer’s show as one watches the body move about, often in silence like walking on new deep snow until the blood flows.

This is a brave cast. At lights up the three are in places with Carr in the center and the others taking up corners in poses. Each takes a turn speaking an intricate interior monologue while not acknowledging the other just a hair’s breath away. They each open their veins quickly with little expected joy to come in their small Irish town for those with little money or future who pump gas, clean chicken coups or are full-time at-home mothers. Their demeanor is sad; small gestures, little facial tics, forlorn eyes, downturned mouths and splayed fingers sometimes in an almost raised whisper of delivery. The three then circle each other without acknowledging the others. It is as if the audience is watching a candle burning with the wax ready to drip off and redden someone’s skin while that person waits in anticipation of the pain willingly. A scene in which Carr and Roswell describe separately sleeping with or later being raped and beaten by the same unseen man (one of Brick’s best friends) in separate incidents is just harrowing as they end up together, shoulders touching but neither looking nor knowing the other. Another scene of aching beauty finds Carr slowly making herself small until she sits on her haunches. These are just two of several little intoxicating moments. One last point, Carr masks her beauty in Act I, hiding under oversized clothes and a baseball cap to give mystery about her sexual proclivities; her transformation to a beauty in Act II feels real … ask any parent who had a daughter going through a Goth stage as a teen.

The set is merely a glossy black painted square no bigger than a small area rug in your own home.  Lighting is dim except for moments of spotlighted energy. Musical selections run the gamut but are largely country and western classics such as Loretta Lynn singing d.i.v.o.r.c.e to what becomes an anthem of Glenn Campbell’s By the Time I get to Phoenix. Costumes in Act I are severe and masculine while in Act II there is more feminine refinement for Carr who appears in a long peasant skirt and Roswell outfitted in a bright red dress exuding some sexuality.

Written by Abbie Spallen. Directed by Linda Murray. Design: Solas Nua (set and sound) Lynly A. Saunders (costumes) Marianne Meadows (lights) Linda Murray (photography) Joe Dempsey (stage manager). Cast: Dan Brick, Madeleine Carr, Stephanie Roswell.

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October 2 - 26, 2008
Take Me Away
Reviewed October 3 by David Siegel

Running time 1: 35 - no intermission
Males’ plight when they mess up their lives … and live without women

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The sad tale of men devoid of women in their lives is not a new one; so this reviewer is always hopeful for a new account unfolding with different approaches or fresh ways to portray the inability of men to show feelings or even give a hug to a son. Alas, while able director Linda Murray guides an effective cast through some unfussy paces, I left with a dry taste in my mouth after having to bear witness to men who have locked up at any hint of emotion beyond trying to piss each other off. So many plights are inflicted on this family of three sons and their father by playwright Gerald Murphy! We have a bed-wetting father, a porno watching eldest son, a middle son who must constantly move about so as to not feel anything, and a submissive youngest son who isn't even able to get off the couch. Each is stricken with an inability to connect with the women in his life, leaving him adrift without roots, without bearings and without direction. Can an audience take a personal interest in these characters for some modicum of sympathy or for some explanation of or escape from real life? In this case, the script gives the audience the same unfeeling sense of the characters; that is to freeze up from the wickedness set before them. There are some sturdy performances by the ensemble, and there are some lines that resonate. Overall, however, this is a bantam weight tag team boxing match, with too much brooding by small characters who only seem intent on hurting each other. They are immobile with only small hints of generosity for one another. After a while, it gets awfully cold watching them.

Story Line: Eddie and his three sons are unexpectedly all together and find reasons to discuss their innermost failures in life. A duty visit to their mother requires them to act like model siblings, but confusion around the illness, which hospital she is in, and references to some mysterious good news become the fuel for this dark tale of family disintegration.

In the program notes, playwright Murphy indicates that his male characters have no experience with the vocabulary of emotion as they struggle with the downward turns in their lives. Fair enough. But he also states that he was “hoping” to provide a “little thought or debate and also to amuse, as ... there is so much about their situation that is (painfully) funny." This reviewer would suggest otherwise. With so much despair, the "funny" was lost. Take Me Away premiered in Dublin in 2004 and then played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it won the Scotsman Fringe First Award. Certainly some of the flaws of the characters might have seemed funny with a pint a Guinness in one’s hand. But Director Murray, a stalwart of Sola Nua with directing credits for such works as Disco Pigs and Trad, could not save this script. Her touch is a light one but there is so little for her to bring such lovely touches too. She has her cast move about physically and and she has them do something she often does as an actor: be still and say so much in stillness. And then she adds to stillness a chewing of fingernails or a facial grimace that speaks loudly since the audience is almost on top of the set.

The work of the ensemble is robust for the most part. Emoting family secrets, though, leads to the inability of others to reach out and help. The many times a “please help me” is spoken, the words are met only with silence or inaction. The actors play their roles in a muscular way. Joe Cronin, the father, builds himself into frenzy over the course of the play. He first comes to the audience’s attention in a suit, tie and white shirt, but slowly comes undone in body language, costume and line delivery as his sons will neither respect him nor come to his aid. His face falls apart and his initial internal paternal strength turns into hand-wringing as he tells of his wife leaving him alone in his home, possibly for a woman. Cronin pulls it off. Jared Hill Mercier as the oldest son is first seen in a darkened room with only a computer monitor lighting the scene and his face … he holds toilet paper with him as if he will need to if for what he might be doing. He is the most successful son, with a job and a small home where all others impose themselves. He is a bundle of tied-up energy, constantly biting his nails as he delivers his lines with slow motion authority. It is rare when the others do what he wants at the time he wants it done. He moves about the stage as if life has left him with no contentment and no wife, only a job. Kevin O’Reilly is the youngest son who passively takes things in and sits on the couch, immobile. That is until he tells his story of a girl who has used him, leaving him in ruins; just a puppy wanting to come home. Alex Vernon is the shark-like middle son. He never stops moving his body or his mouth … and when finally he feels his life slipping away as he tells of his wife leaving him and taking the son he loves, he bangs his head against the wall to deaden himself and not feel the real pain of his miserable life. As his brothers and father finally leave his home, Mercier is once again at his computer, in a robe, tissues at the ready for what may take place after the audience leaves.

The small black box space at Flashpoint is made into a cramped living room with a non-descript yellowish-beige couch at the center. Surrounding the couch are several table lamps and a hanging ceiling lamp, along with a table upon which sits a computer that under multiple Helen Hayes nominee Marianne Meadows nicely done work, lights the set at opening and closing scenes. But, this is a room without life. There is not even a painting or poster on a wall and no one is allowed to open the one window to allow fresh air in the room; and so the warm stale air begins to stifle.

Written by Gerald Murphy. Directed by Linda Murray. Design: Dan Brick and Linda Murray (set, sound, costumes and props) Marianne Meadows (lights) Dan Brick (photography) Joe Dempsey (stage manager). Cast:  Joe Cronin, Jared Hill Mercier, Kevin O’Reilly, Alexander Vernon.

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March 13 - April 6, 2008
Portia Coughlan
Reviewed March 22 by David Siegel

Running Time 2:00 - one intermission
A relentlessly fatalistic evening
Performed at the H Street Playhouse in NE

Click here to buy the script

Loaded down with overtures to classic Greek and Irish myths, Shakespearean characters and Biblical back-story, Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan is one relentlessly fatalistic evening. It is a despairing drama with suicide as the salvation for the main character. In its getting to that death the piling on of “big” themes mortally wounds what could have been a fascinating telling of the failings of family and heredity in a small Irish rural community from women’s perspective. There are some lovely technical touches throughout and there is a skilled cast, especially the women. In the title role, Linda Murray, Solas Nua’s artistic director, is one lissome being. With her high cheekbones, the moves of a trained dancer and lovely lilting voice, Murray holds the center of this production as Portia Coughlan’s world, her family, her dreams and her nightmares of the death of her twin brother, Gabriel, take her down into madness and ultimate suicide. Barefoot throughout the production, there are many times in which the way Murray curls and crunches her toes and demurely sits or coils her legs or especially how she moves her eyes from side to side that are more engaging than some of the sharp lines she speaks. As directed by Jessica Burgess, there are effective labors to soften this hard edged piece and traffic it with movement and life. Overall, Portia Coughlan is a hard sit for an audience.

Storyline: Haunted by the death of her twin brother Gabriel, 15 years before, Portia Coughlan has become a ghostly figure, traversing the ever shifting Irish landscape in search of the missing part of herself.

Irish playwright Marina Carr (b 1964) was nurtured at the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Her work often combines rural Irish domestic drama with classical themes to depict grand-scale human tragedy as well as the interior workings of individual lives. What is intriguing in this script is that a beautifully rendered death of the title character is at the very top of Act II and the remainder of the act is to provide explanations for the death. The recurrent theme is one of character’s inabilities to forgive or forget and get past their sordid lives. As for the plot point of the long dead twin brother Gabriel, it is one of menace and insanity complicated by its apparent incestuous nature. In general, the male characters come off as either little more than testosterone in different clothes or as timid and wounded men of little value as protectors. There is little love or brightness in this script and it takes focused energy to take all the draining despair. Director Jessica Burgess has a tough task. But, Burgess keeps this evening from going too far into the melodramatic or making the main character so odious that an audience will “check out” from the production. Burgess does give her lighting designer room to bring some color to the proceedings.

Linda Murray is lithesome in her movement and presentation. The way she moves at times belies the lines she delivers. She clearly exudes her slow maddening without being overly hysterical except when the situation fits. (For example, the moments when she tries to shut out the voices she hears.) Her few feeble attempts at affection and closeness with others do not look false. Murray’s fiery delivery of the explanation for why she does not want to be the mother of her three children are ones a psychiatrist has probably heard before. Other production standouts include Charlotte Akin, who brings life and energy and thankfully some humor, in her role as the town whore gone straight, and Rusty Clauss as an embittered, brittle old matriarch living in a wheelchair who delivers pungent, caustic remarks with spit and brio. When Clauss is finally “outed” about her horrific hidden family secrets, she blanches and crumbles credibly. Jonathan Church plays the husband as a cipher of passivity and little zeal in anything. Bryan Cassidy and Declan Cashman, as Portia’s father and mother, are solid enough and provide some fire and feeling. Grady Weatherford is the safe and gentle older man who provides the only male tenderness. Camille Loomis, the ghostly dead twin Brother Gabriel, is nicely suited in her speechless role as she plays hide and seek with both the other characters and the audience.

The H Street Playhouse black box space is presented simply. A platform and an area that serves as a kitchen or as a bar are the set on this mostly barren stage. There are also hanging plastic strips both at the rear of the set and at the wings that are lit and played with throughout the production for a sense of the descent into madness. The costume work by Lynly Saunders provides each character with a distinct outfit, generally in deep browns. Murray is fitted with an aqua colored wrap that accentuates her figure without sexuality. Only once is there any real sensual look to an outfit when, for just a few minutes, Murray wears a deep rich red outfit. It presents a luxurious look, but is soon taken off as the moment of showing love to her husband passes quickly.

Written by Marina Carr. Directed by Jessica Burgess. Design: Marie-Audrey Desy (set) Lynly A. Saunders (costumes) Paul Frydrychowski (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) Joe Dempsey (stage manager). Cast: Charlotte Akin, Declan Cashman, Bryan Cassidy, Jonathan Church, Rusty Clauss, Camille Loomis, Frank Mancino, Linda Murray, Stephanie Roswell, Adam Segaller, Grady Weatherford.

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January 23 - February 17, 2008
Reviewed by David Siegel

Running Time 1:05 -  no intermission
A little charmer of a quiet play
Click here to buy the script

A lyrical and intimate little slip of a play called Trad has found its way to the small black box space at Flashpoint.  This is another uncommon offering from the always adventuresome, Irish themed Solas Nua. As directed by Linda Murray, Trad is a life affirming, one-hour fable about searching through family roots, walking the Irish landscape and sifting through stifling traditions to seek out the future of one family. It is the very personal tale of an improbably old father (Chris Davenport) and his 100 year old son (Michael John Casey) who journey from their village seeking out a possible heir who has never been seen and who may only be alive in the imaginations of the two “muddled but not addled” old men.  The rhythm of well spoken words and the constant telling and retelling of well worn, fantastic stories to explain the everyday woes of Irish villagers take the center stage from the first beat of this production. The play holds interest with some very poignant scenes that give real life to family intimacies and memories. But the script is a bit thin and even feels padded sometimes with actions that add to the time spent on the journey but not much else. Don’t expect big things, or big moments, or big laughs … this is a quiet piece; especially nice for a winter’s night when a more undersized helping of entertainment is desired and you are in the Downtown DC area.

Storyline: A fable about tradition in a tradition bound place. A one-armed 100 year old man sets off on an epic journey across the Irish wilderness with his feisty one-legged father in search of the son he has never met. A journey into Irish roots and identity. 

Playwright Mark Doherty has developed a character study set in rural Ireland held in check by oral tradition, vivid yarns and the remnants of religion. The narrative explains how to live from the perspective of a tradition-bound father with a son who is more open to new notions of living. The son wants to look to the future as a goal, while the father at first appears to be living always looking backwards. As they shuffle their way over the landscape Doherty invents some appealing tales and delightful daydreams to bring early and easy charm to the production. Doherty is not a syrupy Irish story teller. The narrative unfolds as the father fears the family “end of the line…no men left” and castigates his son for having “no wife and no son -- what value have you been?” When the father learns of his son’s dalliance with “a Mary” who may have given birth to a child in the distant past, off they go to find this heir to the family “blood and genes.” Director Murray does inventive work here to bring this tidbit to life in such a small space. One scene that is worth the entire show finds the father asleep in a cemetery where his wife appears in his dreams from behind a scrim. They dance a mirror duet in slow motion with a live guitar providing the music. It is breath-taking in its beauty.

Chris Davenport as the one-legged father who lives through anecdotes and tall tales is wizened enough and is playful enough throughout the production. One comes to like this old fellow and await his next tall tale. Michael John Casey as the one armed son who appeases his father by acting as if he has not heard any story no matter how many times he has heard them. Together they trek, talking all the time until they meet up with a crusty cleric (Stephanie Roswell) who holds information they seek. And oh, what a tall story is told by cleric! A fantastical allegorical tale of virginal birth, of a young woman untouched by a man’s hands that gives the birth of Christ a run for the money. A parallel secular allegory unfolds to explain away the birth of Da's bastard grandchild. Just like Moses, the father is not allowed to reach the goal, but passes away knowing that his son, his grandson and his Irish traditions will continue through the generations. As he tells his son “it is now your job to keep this going.”

Flashpoint's black box space is squeezed tightly with only three rows of seats and the audience right on top of the actors. There is no room for error. The set is essentially just an overturned dory along with a grey scrim backdrop and some sand on the floor. But from that comes almost a radio style production in which the voices and the words carry the audience along. Lighting by Marianne Meadows is most touching when the scrim is lit to show apparitions behind the main set area. The live music by Jonathan Watkins includes some pre-show music consisting of a number of Irish ditties about sweet colleens, mermaids and whisky.

Written by Mark Doherty. Directed by Linda Murray. Design: Dan Brick (set)  Lynly Saunders (costumes) Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (musical advisor and photography). Cast: Michael John Casey, Chris Davenport, Stephanie Roswell. Musician: Jonathan Watkins.

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October 11 - November 4, 2007
Made in China
Reviewed by David Siegel

Running Time   1:45  - one intermission
v A violent and profanity-filled male rage
Performances at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE

Click here to buy the script

A 15 round heavyweight boxing match with three actors in the center of a cramped ring slinging verbal taunts and punches in controlled mayhem is the Solas Nua production of Mark O’Rowe’s Made in China. O’Rowe’s language and the linguistic skills he places in his characters are best for those who can find themselves quickly learning that in this particular Irish male world, words such as “f*ck” have no meaning other than just as a male means of emoting. This is a male world in which there are few positive words about a woman, unless she is your mother. But, this is also a production that will take your breath away when the expected violence takes place. Some of the violence is so close to the audience that one misstep or mistimed action will bring real blood. Yet, the plot is thin, maybe even something seen before; low-lifers trying to make it up one step higher in their savage world. Do we care about them beyond being vehicles for our voyeur pleasures in a world of nasty language and brute force? Not too likely.

Storyline: Dublin’s underworld, where three criminal foot soldiers battle each other for pecking order, power and authority, all within the confines of one claustrophobic room, where secrets are exposed to humiliate, violence is talked about endlessly - or erupts - and the foreign language label of a jacket (Made in China) sets off one final humiliation.

Mark O’Rowe’s Made in China was first produced by the Dublin’s famous Abbey Theater in 2001. O’Rowe was in his early 30’s. This is its premiere in the United States. O’Rowe’s language is raw but real for those at least familiar with David Mamet and his brand of on-stage “maleness.” This is not comic book vulgarity, but rather the descriptive language of soldiers getting their brio ready. To O’Rowe language is precise, however, not just crude. His characters argue over words and nuance; are the things men wear “pants” or “trousers” or is the extra cloth added to a pair of jeans to give it a bit more room a “gusset?” This is an environment in which male rape is far worse than death since rape humiliates the living forever, and where a karate lesson easily becomes the vision of male sex with foreplay and thrusts. In O’Rowe’s world view, there is no rest, and there is no certainty.

Directed by Colin Hovde, this is a furious emotional rage of a production. Violence, whether physical or verbal, can flare quickly or take its own sweet time. A weapon can even be a stolen woman’s prosthetic leg. Verbal provocations are constant; they are little cuts to draw blood and reactions. Under Hovde’s direction the erupting physical violence does not seem like staged illusion, except for some well done slow-motion scenes. Hovde has honed the production to a sharp point with a constant derision of the feminine while male testosterone and willingness to inflict pain to show dominance never stops. The ensemble includes a well-done performance by Dan Brick. Brick just wants to belong, to be loyal to someone or something. He brings forth his desires with head tilts and submissive gestures; that is until he begins to grow into his own male strength to the extent that, at the end, he too his willing to kill in order to belong. An umbrella in his hands, at first a sign of weakness, later becomes a weapon. But he pays a dear price for his newly learned maleness. Joel Rueben Ganz plays his vicious character with harsh bravado. He struts around the small space as the domineering Alpha of the group, but his viciousness hides a deep humiliation that when made public fuels his actions to kill or be killed. The move to daring fury seems real enough. Danny Gavigan wants to be an Alpha, but does not have the absolute ruthlessness needed, until a last desperate act when he is attacked. As for loyalty, it just doesn’t matter for anyone at the end. Only survival is important.

The technical work at the Atlas Theatre black box makes the audience feel part of this very small, tight wound world. And, know this well, the audience is part of the production in the tight space that is the Atlas Black Box, made more sinister by the 4-sided hollow square that is the stage surrounded by two rows of audience chairs, allowing the audience to peer into the action and at the reactions of each other. The set is set off with waist high plywood so that the audience is looking inside a room through glassless windows. The sound work by Chris Pifer includes the whacks of punches and kicks during the more stylized action scenes. Marianne Meadows’ lighting for the slow motion scenes further strengthens the sense of no escape from violence. No credits are given for the fight combat but should be.

Written by Mark O’Rowe. Directed by Colin Hovde. Design: Colin Hovde (set) Diana Khoury (costumes) Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) C. Stanley (photography). Cast: Dan Brick, Danny Gavigan and Joel Reuben Ganz.

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May 17 - June 24, 2007
Scenes From The Big Picture
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 3:00 - one intermission
A day in the life of people in Troubles-torn Belfast
Performed at Catholic University's Callan Theatre

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Potomac Stages is publishing two reviews this morning - both are of productions featuring huge casts. One, Broadway's mounting of the National Theatre of Great Britain's massive Coram Boy, playing in Broadway's 1,425-seat Imperial Theatre, has a cast of 20 actors plus choir and orchestra. There's no choir or orchestra here in the small black box, Callan Theatre in the basement of the Hartke Theater on the campus of Catholic University, but the cast of this production outnumbers that massive staging on Broadway by one. There the similarity ends, for the Broadway show is a trip back in time to a unified story, while this one is a snapshot in time at the intertwined stories of people living in a single neighborhood. The time is the present and the neighborhood happens to be in Belfast in troubled Northern Ireland. Troubled it is, but the focus is not "The Troubles," that decades-long plague of uncivil warfare that wracked Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That agreement may have brought "The Troubles" to an official end, but not all the violence has ceased and the wounds to the body politic have yet to heal. This is an attempt to answer the question: what is life like for the people of Belfast?

Storyline: Life goes on, even as the impact of "The Troubles" swirls about Northern Ireland. As many as 40 vignettes show the interaction between individuals, pairs and groups in a Belfast community where lives are still lived, love occasionally sparks but hate more often raises its ugly head, and everyone's sense of duty to partners, friends, associates and just plain acquaintances is often put to the test.

The play is by Owen McCafferty whose Mojo Mickybo was produced by Keegan Theatre earlier this year. Going to the other extreme from that two-character play, Scenes From The Big Picture creates a patchwork of impressions as many separate stories weave through two lengthy acts. The play's title is a clue to its purpose. It is "scenes from" the big picture and not the picture itself. It is as if an incomplete jigsaw puzzle provided just enough filled in area to let you see what the picture might become when completed. The pieces you do see interconnect just as lives of neighbors do. The cumulative effect of many small stories isn't so much one large story as it is a mélange. It creates the atmosphere of a place and a time. The play is getting a huge production from tiny Solas Nua in collaboration with the Tinderbox Theatre Company of Belfast. Belfast-based director Des Kennedy brings it all together as he divides the large playing space into definable areas to help keep the stories straight. He draws from his cast a series of sharp performances.

The cast is entirely local, featuring some well known veterans and some fresh new faces, each contributing something distinctive to the mix. There's Nanna Ingvarsson and Brian Hemmingsen, anguished over the fate of their missing son. There's John C. Bailey drowning frustrations in Jameson. There's Joe Baker swaggering as a young punk. Some scenes are hard and ugly enough to make you want to look away. The shooting - execution style - by John Tweel is disturbing, but the stoic way in which Patrick Bussink accepts the gunshots is even more so. No one performer gets enough time in the spotlight to create a star performance, but every performer in Kennedy's production makes a significant contribution when in the light.

In Robbie Hayes's set design, the actors not participating in a particular scene are often sitting in chairs to the back of the playing space fully visible to the audience. They help create a sense of urban congestion with their presence. Kennedy doesn't have them just sit there as actors waiting their cues, however. They watch the action on stage or make a display of ignoring it, displaying the elaborate shell that many inner-city residents adopt to permit some detachment from the plight of their fellows.  Strips of transparent plastic hang down from two wheeled frames like the cold-preserving curtains of the refrigerated food sections at a supermarket. Cast members move these frames about to create different spaces and then enter and exit through them in a fluid motion that keeps the performance flowing smoothly from one vignette to another. Place, time and, more importantly, attitude is often established by Marianne Meadows' choice of angle as well as hue for her lights and Lynly Saunders predominantly dull brown costumes. The result is an atmospheric collection of scenes.

Written by Owen McCafferty. Directed by Des Kennedy. Fight choreography by Chris Niebling. Design: Robbie Hayes (set) Lynly Saunders (costumes) Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) Amber C. Krause and Megan Reichel (stage managers). Cast: John C. Bailey, Joe Baker, John Brennan, Madeleine Burke, Patrick Bussink, Declan Cashman, Bryan Cassidy, Madeline Carr, Paloma Ellis, Brian Hemmingsen, Nanna Ingvarsson, Joe Isenberg, Don Kenefick, Jason McCool, Eric Messner, Ellie Nicoll, Kevin O'Reilly, Jon Reynolds, Stephanie Roswell, Daniel Siefring, John Tweel.

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June 22 - July 16, 2006

Running time 1:15 - no intermission
A stream-of-consciousness diatribe in high dudgeon
Performances at the DC Arts Center

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First it was Disco Pigs that got our attention. A new production company giving voice to the cascade of words written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Never mind that you couldn't understand very many of the words - the mixture of the gibberish of street jargon, baby talk and Irish brogue created energy, emotion and drama in the hands of extraordinarily talented Dan Brick and Linda Murray. Then it was Brick alone on stage directed by Murray in Walsh's Misterman, a dual-monologue of a split personality punk. Now  they add the not-insignificant but highly idiosyncratic talents of Brian Hemmingsen to the mix as Brick directs him and Murray in this explosion of words you can understand, assembled into sentences you can mostly understand, which tell a story that may or may not be fully understood. It is an hour and a quarter of expletives - many of which are the kind that a former President deleted. Just what it all adds up to is somehow less important than the style and energy with which it is delivered.

Storyline: Two intertwined monologues present the story of a man who is inordinately proud of his accomplishments and his child, a woman stricken by a debilitating illness. She struggles with accepting a life without successes just as he, who had always hoped for a son who would grow up to take his place as a great furniture salesman, struggles with the twin burdens of accepting both the fact that his success won't be passed on to the next generation and that the success itself may not have been all he thought it was.

The first image of the evening in Dan Brick's design is the explosive opening of a large black box that has dominated the small playing space of the DCAC theater. The box falls open with a crash, exposing the white interior walls on three sides and a shocking red wall falling to the floor toward the audience. It exposes a white bed with two fully dressed people partially covered by a sheet. One is Brian Hemmingsen, a large man in a rumpled suit who couldn't fit in the bed or the box even alone. He's obviously emotionally upset and his first few dozen words are that same explosive expletive repeated over and over. The other is Linda Murray, a frail young woman whose leg is bent back under her in a way that indicates a lack of control over her own body and, by extension, her own life.

They deliver their disjointed segments of monologues not so much to each other as to the audience or to themselves. Hemmingsen has the most words and he shouts them in a fit at times. At other times, the smooth (or oily) salesman in his character comes to the surface as he addresses the audience, stating his case for the often questionable actions he took over his career. Murray's words are somehow more disjointed, more stream-of-consciousness as she pops up in the bed to comment, not on what Hemmingsen is saying, but on what is flitting through her mind.

Bedbound was commissioned by Dublin's theater festival in 2000. Walsh fulfilled that commission with a one-act, two-performer, one-set piece filled with dense writing and a complex way of telling a simple story. All three of Walsh's plays that Solas Nua has presented have been one-acts. It is a format that he handles with great skill, for his stories fit the genre without extraneous sub-plots. As this play proves, simple is not the same thing as simplistic.

Written by Enda Walsh. Directed by Dan Brick. Design: Dan Brick (set) Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) Agata Peszko (photography). Cast: Brian Hemmingsen, Linda Murray.

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March 2 - 26, 2006
The Mai

Reviewed March 12
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
An Irish play of family ties
Performed at the Josephine Butler Parks Center
2437 15th Street NW

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This fairly new company strikes out in a new direction by mounting its latest play not in a theater where the world of the play is created on stage, but in an environment that matches the world of the play. A mansion is a major plot point in Maria Carr's play. Solas Nua presents it in the ornate, L shaped ballroom of a mansion which served as the Embassy of Brazil at one time and the Embassy of Hungary at another. It is a lovely Italian Renaissance Revival style building across the street from Meridian Hill Park. Unfortunately, the impressive space is not well utilized, and the resulting problems do damage to the production and the play itself.

Storyline: A woman called "The Mai" has spent the years since her husband abandoned her building a mansion she hopes will entice him to stay if he ever returns to her. When he does, the relationship is no better than it was when he left. Her 100-year-old grandmother, two sisters and her aunts and her daughters complicate and comment on her life.

Environmental productions, the staging of play in the location where the actions is supposed to be happening instead of in a theater, can enhance a theatrical experience. Certainly, the idea of using a grand home to stage a play about a woman with a compulsion to create a grand home is tempting. However, these productions pose special challenges to a director and an entire theater company. Non-traditional blocking, attention to sightlines and acoustics and decisions about the use of space can make the difference between success and failure. In this case, despite the grace and dignity of the room and the quality work by Marianne Meadows who subtly lights the space with table lamps, the performance of the play suffers from what might have been a superb setting.

A key problem is the decision to use the entire L shaped room rather than just one segment. The audience is placed at a diagonal in the junction of what is really two spaces. Entrances and exits required the erection of temporary screens, which slice up the space and rob an elegant room of its very elegance. Some of the dialogue echoing from the leg of the room facing west toward the park is garbled and some of the blocking of scenes in the leg facing north is awkward. As a result, what might have been an experience akin to eavesdropping on interesting strangers becomes a battle with distractions. The use of a cellist for a live performance of the music which also is important to the story lends an additional touch of class to the piece. However, placing her in the middle of the action where she is visible as she sits through scenes waiting her next cue, and where she can be seen playing as the actors mime playing their undersized cello, adds yet another layer of distractions from which the play never really recovers.

Kerry Waters plays the title character with a sometimes impressive sense of determination, although she often succumbs to awkward postures in order to accommodate strange blocking. Stephanie Roswell is very good as her daughter who also serves as a sort of narrator as if the events you see really are her memories of past events. Declan Cashman and Elizabeth Bruce are a lot of fun as "The Mai's" cackling aunts. Ken Arnold, as the long-lost husband returned for another go at the relationship for obscure reasons, seems most uncomfortable performing in such close proximity to the audience. The most intriguing of the cast is Rusty Clauss as the 100-year-old grandmother who smokes her opium pipe and revels in her stories of unique past as the result of a brief dalliance between an Irish lass and an African or Moorish traveler.

Written by Marina Carr. Directed by Linda Murray and Caroline Kenney. Design: Scott A. Ford and Linda Murray (set) Lynly Saunders (costumes) Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) Agata Peszko (photography) Amy Boyce (stage manager). Cast: Ken Arnold, Elizabeth Bruce, Declan Cashman, Rusty Clauss, Clare Johnson, Karen Novack, Stephanie Roswell, Kerry Waters. Cellist: Karin Loya.

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January 11 - February 5, 2006
Howie The Rookie

Reviewed January 29
Running time 1:50 - one intermission
A pair of inter-related contemporary Irish monologues

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Full Irish brogue and youthful urban attitude mark the monologues of "The Howie Lee" and "The Rookie Lee" as each explains the events of a violent weekend on the streets of Dublin in Mark O'Rowe's two-monologue play which features performances by company newcomer Eric Messner and company veteran Dan Brick. Linda Murray directs the two in their separate presentations flanking the intermission. Performances are in the tiny secondstage facility on the ground floor of the building next to the art gallery/cafe/theater at the Warehouse on 7th Street NW. With a blank stage in the black-painted room and with mirrors on the back wall reflecting the audience, the emphasis is entirely on the text and the performances of the two actors. They both do impressive work.

Storyline: Two young men in contemporary Dublin are swept up in senseless violence over such contentious issues as the passing of scabies from one body to another and the death, intended or otherwise, of a pair of expensive fighting fish. The causes of violent confrontations, however, is of less interest than the lives that would be affected by them, as each man delivers his story in separate but related monologues.

Messner has brought an impressive intensity to recent appearances in the Potomac Region, most notably his work as the visiting fireman in Olney's Omnium Gatherum. As "the Howie Lee." who shirked his family duties briefly to pursue his activities on the street with some disastrous consequences, he is the epitome of a youthful punk. Brick, the managing director of this impressive new theater company, has wowed its audiences in both of the companies first two shows: the two-character Disco Pig and his solo-piece Misterman. Here he mellows a bit from the earlier roles, as is appropriate for the character, but he is no less a pleasure to watch and his "the Rookie Lee" is a strongly drawn, intriguing character indeed.

Both performances are in full brogue which requires intensive listening for those in the audience whose ears aren't fully attuned to the street patter of Dublin. Messner's is the thicker of the two. Perhaps this is a reflection of Brick's recent experience finding the right balance between the atmosphere required of the piece and the needs of his audience, but it is also true that his somewhat less impenetrable accent is right for his character as well. Messner's inflections are a reflection of the cultural posture that is so much a part of the self image of his character. 

Marianne Meadows provides highly dramatic pools of light at different spots on the small playing space. Most of the time, these pools intensify the dramatic impact of the delivery of key points of the story or the personal revelations of the two speakers. A few cues, however, distract whether from the the timing of the cue, the precision focusing of specific lights or of the accuracy of the actor's hitting their marks. Similarly, the sound design sometimes enhanced a moment and sometimes obscured a point. With the complexity of the interrelated stories being told in such a unique voice, the audience needs every bit of help it can get to follow and appreciate the piece.

Written by Mark O'Rowe. Directed by Linda Murray. Design: Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) Agata Peszko (photography) Amy Boyce (stage manager). Cast: Dan Brick, Eric Messner.

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October 27 - November 20, 2005

Reviewed October 30
Running time 0:50 - no intermission
An intriguing solo show
Performed at the DC Arts Center
Price range: $13.50 - $17.50

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Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs was Solas Nua's first theatrical outing which brought the new company quickly to the attention of the Potomac Region theater community. They return to his cannon to present another intense piece that looks at life through Irish eyes. While Disco Pigs used a vocabulary so strange to the American ear that audiences gleaned more of the story from the behavior of the two-person cast than from the dialogue, this one-actor play is much easier to decipher but no less intense. It is performed by the same Dan Brick who was half the cast of Disco Pigs. Here he is directed by the other half, Solas Nua's Artistic Director, Linda Murray.

Storyline: On the surface, the young Irish lad who preaches the word of God among his neighbors in the small town of Inishfree, off the west coast of Ireland, seems harmless enough. When a neighbor's dog yaps and nips at him, however, he beats the pup to a pulp. He charms his way out of that scrape only to commit a more grievous act the next time he feels unjustly attacked. This time, its fatal.

Dan Brick throws himself into this part with the same passion he brought to Disco Pigs, but the part requires him to hold much of that passion inside. He lets us glimpse the yearning, the hurt and the fury of the fellow without letting loose except in those few brief moments when his character completely looses control. Then, he is a frightening force.

The play is performed on an almost bare stage with just a suit of clothes on a hanger on one side of the playing space, a curtain-draped door on the other and a simple rope swing in the center. Almost unnoticed in the darkness of the space is a structure of pipes above which provides a drenching rain which triggers one of Brick's best reaction moments.  

While the play is referred to as a solo show, it is really a one-actor/one-tape recorder play so the audience hears what the young man is hearing, either in fact or just in his head, as he holds conversations with neighbors, courts a girl or visits his father's grave. This puts a premium on the sound design of Chris Pifer which fills the tiny space at the DCAC.

Written by Enda Walsh. Directed by Linda Murray. Design: Marianne Meadows (lights) Chris Pifer (sound) Agata Peszko (photography) Amy Boyce (stage manager). Cast: Dan Brick.

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June 26 - July 27, 2005
Disco Pigs

Reviewed June 28
Running time 1:00 - no intermission
Youthful energy and verbal games cast a spell
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The new contemporary Irish arts organization, Solas Nua, teams up with a theater company with deep Irish roots, Keegan Theatre, to present two high energy performers in this fascinating theater piece on the dark nights of Keegan's run of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Church Street Theatre. It is a piece by perhaps the most contemporary of contemporary Irish playwrights, Enda Walsh, that plays with language with a youthful insouciance, drawing the audience in not so much to the story but to the world of two youngsters on the streets of a modern Irish city. Directed by Keegan's co-founder Eric Lucas, Solas Nua's Artistic Director Linda Murray teams with Dan Brick in a romp that begins with high spirits and manages to maintain a sense of youthful innocence even as events turn ugly.

Storyline: Pig and Runt are two youths on the streets of Cork who rely on each other for a sense of belonging and self worth. Both are turning 17, but Runt, as most girls do, is maturing faster than Pig who begins to be concerned that she won't remain his special friend for long. When she attracts the attention of another boy, his fear and anger take a violent and even fatal turn.

The storyline isn't the important thing in this piece, it is the energy of the relationship between Pig and Runt and their special line of communication that is paramount. Indeed, given the brogue as well as the verbal liberties taken by cast and playwright, the storyline shouldn't really be reproduced in such simple text. Rather, it should read something like: "Peegun Runt, too yuthsn tes treats uva c'ntemp ryerrish sidy -  reelion ee'other f'a snsobe long'n and sulfwuort. Botr 17 butrunt, sssmost gurlsd, s' matrring fstn Pig. Hoo begns t'be conced tha she won't ree minismate furlong."

You could linger over each word and phrase to understand the literal meaning, but in the process, you would loose all the vigor of the piece. Besides, the connection between the two characters is plain from the moment they come storming on stage with the boy pushing the girl at full speed in a purloined shopping cart. The changes in their relationship are abundantly, even painfully clear and these changes are the essence of the story. The ability of Brick and Murray to maintain the sense of camaraderie while simultaneously showing their characters' separate rate of maturation and the resulting sense of fear then dread then panic on Pig's part contrasted with the excitement then confusion then consternation on Runt's grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

Brick and Murray don't so much work their way through the piece as they attack it with everything they are worth. Posture, mannerism, eye contact, volume, stutter and glance - all help the audience understand without having to understand a word. The story is absorbed rather than being analyzed. The result is an exhausting but rewarding one-hour experience that will thrill some and leave others wondering just what in the world they have seen.

Written by Enda Walsh. Directed by Eric Lucas. Design: Billy Maloy (costumes) Dan Martin (lights) David Crandall (sound) Paul Ogba (photography) Caitlin McAndrews (stage manger).  Cast: Dan Brick, Linda Murray.