Corrib Theatre’s Irish Immersion

The burgeoning company's recent staged readings cover the “gift of gab," the curse of “The Troubles,” and the nation's obsession with football.

Before we talk about Corrib Theatre (which of course we will, at length) can I test you with a trivia question?

Why does one kiss the Blarney Stone?

“For luck,” you say?

No no no no no.

You kiss the Stone to get “the gift of gab”—which allows you to spin your good, or ill, or abysmal luck into such transcendent phrases of poetry that you end up enjoying it either way.

Damon Kupper poses for 'A Night in November.' Photo by Owen Carey.

Damon Kupper poses for ‘A Night in November.’ Photo by Owen Carey.

Of course, different cultures hold different oral traditions; some state the fewest and truest words, some spit the angriest and strongest. But generally not the Irish. They favor a kind of lyrical loquaciousness, saying the same thing in different words over and over, verse-chorus-verse, glorying in metaphor and syllabic structures that lilt like the trill of a penny-whistle. Once they get going, it’s impossible to stop them; it’s as though they have nowhere else to be.

Corrib Theatre (pronounced “CAR-rub”) was formed last year under the artistic direction of theater educator and director Gemma Whalen. It’s a company without a brick-and-mortar headquarters that presents staged readings of contemporary Irish plays at different locations around the city. In these no-frills shows, there’s nothing to distract from the actors’ expression and the plays’ Blarney-kissed cadence—delivered, of course, in appropriate brogue.

Sebastian Barry’s Tales of Ballycumber, Corrib’s first offering of 2014, was read a few weeks ago at the Lumber Room by a five-member cast (Todd Van Voris, Karl Hanover, Luisa Sermol, Rolland Walsh, and Annabel Cantor). Staged as a series of two-person conversations, the play makes a perfect crash course in the “gift of gab.”

First, the teenage Evans (Walsh) visits with his neighbor Nicholas (Hanover) over tea. After he leaves, we’re told he turns up in a frosty field, mortally wounded. His father Andrew (Van Voris) confronts Nicholas at his home, then retreats to attend further to his still-dying son. Nicholas’s sister Tania (Sermol) swings by to update her brother on the boy’s condition and the village’s response, and finally, Nicholas receives visitations from two ghosts: the newly-departed Evans and a well-known local preteen cancer casualty (Cantor).

The first conversation of the sequence is the longest, and deceptively mundane. Lonely bachelor Nicholas Farquahar chews young Evans’ ear at length, his run-on sentences ranging from sprightly pastoral imagery (the jackdaws, the daffodils) to grave village gossip (Patsy’s brother killed himself) to paranormal sightings (a specter once appeared in Nicholas’s car) to religious prejudices (you can’t trust a Catholic). Evans counters by rhapsodizing about his crush on a blue-eyed girl and sharing “facts,” like “Elvis’s great-great-great-great grandfather was born in Hacketstown.” Within this prattle leap little grace-notes of foreboding: memories of a tuberculosis epidemic that wiped out most of the town, mention of two suicides, Nicholas’s farm falling to ruin, even fights and deaths among his property’s birds.

When Evans’ father Andrew (Van Voris) arrives, he demands to know what Nicholas and his son talked about just before Evans’ (possibly self-inflicted) injury. Flummoxed, Nicholas insists that it was just idle chatter, and the audience—having heard it—has to agree. Sure, Evans was mooning over a girl, but it seemed ordinary enough for a teen. Much of Andrew’s and Nicholas’s talk is a meta-conversation that points up the, urm, curse of gab: how can you be sure something you said didn’t inadvertently cause calamity?

The source of Evans’ wounds remains a mystery until his ghost reveals the truth. But in the meantime, Andrew talks of regional conflict (shootings in Dublin) and shares memories of Evans as a child piquing his parental anxieties. Then Nicholas and his sister Tanya argue over which of their parents was must abusive and share memories of a village child-molester. Tanya and the girl ghost both describe Ballycumber’s uncanny compulsion to decorate young people’s deathbeds in football (soccer) paraphernalia. The discussions are so expansive, so detailed, and so stream-of-consciousness, hearing them has the effect of one long camera shot panning through the town, in and out cottage windows, over frosty green hills. In the tradition of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, a thousand words are worth a picture.

Marie Jones’ A Night in November, a one-man show starring Damon Kupper, opened last weekend at Kell’s Irish Pub…and soundly checks the prior title’s romanticized depiction of the Irish as eloquent, wistful tea-sippers in quaint townships. This show, in contrast, profiles men of action. Sponsored very appropriately by the Timbers, it critically examines the country’s culture of competition, both on and off the football (soccer) pitch. The Irish are preparing to play the Italians in the World Cup, while paramilitary forces from the UDA (Protestants) and the IRA (Catholics) battle in the streets. Humble dole clerk and football fan Kenneth McCallister (Kupper) attends a Belfast game and watches in shock as Protestant fans—including his father-in-law—burst into sectarian slurs, taunting Catholics about a recent massacre and essentially making sport of The Troubles.

A Night in November amplifies the rumblings of unrest from Tales of Ballycumber to an out-loud shout. We hear much more about Catholic/Protestant bigotry, unemployment, and violence. We’re shown drunken carousing and hints of hooliganism. While these aspects of Irish identity touch Ballycumber, too, we’re shown that they absolutely rack far-north Belfast. “Every day,” remarks Kenneth, “I check under the car for explosive devices.”

Kupper achieves no small feat in this role. At times, he plays multiple characters bandying short lines back and forth faster than soccer passes (“Where?” “There.” “Where?” “There!”) Spatially, he’s also on the spot, weaving left and looking right, then vice-versa, to give the impression of a dynamic interaction. As if that weren’t enough, he’s speaking a (partly) different language—to the extent that the program contains a glossary. “Billy Boys” are Protestants and “Feens” and “Taigs” are unkind words for Catholics. Other unique terms—like “crack” to mean a lively scene—aren’t listed and must be discerned through context clues. We certainly get to see Kupper sweat, but to be fair, that nervous energy suits his primary character, Kenneth.

Ballycumber and November are both contemporary Irish works, but the former feels timeless while the latter is relatively current, set in ’93-’94 and referencing organizations that continue activity to this day. While Ballycumber‘s Nicholas fixates on philosophy and nature, November‘s Kenneth makes sense of the world within the trappings of modern society: the car, the stadium, the airport…the country club, the city, the office, the national news. As Kupper brings Kenneth to life, November pulls us into the foreign-but-familiar Irish present—complete with suggestions on how to improve the future.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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