The Dead

The Dead

The Dead
By James Joyce
Book by Richard Nelson
Music by Shaun Davey
Lyrics by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey
Directed by Mark Edward Smith
Starring Nicholas Wuehrmann, Meghan Moroney, and Patti McGuire
Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando Florida

This might be the least Christmassy Christmas story ever presented. True, it’s just before the holiday, the snow is flying in Dublin, and ham and goose are on the table, but the music and the story is pure Irish through and through. Rather than the issues of “Good will toward men” or “Away in a manger,” the question lurking is the value of Irish culture: is it useless shite, or a great ethnic tradition trodden down by British snobbery? This musical is derived from an episode in Joyce’s “Dubliners;” Joyce felt if he could understand his native town he could understand any place. Perhaps, but at least he hewed to the old writers dicta of “write what you know,” and Dublin is what he knew best of all.

Aunt Julia (McGuire) and Aunt Kate (Karel Wright) are putting up their annual musical Christmas party along with the maiden niece Mary Jane (Amanda Leakey). Various friends arrive: Gabriel Conroy (Wuehrmann) and his wife Greta (Moroney) are central; he plans to go bicycling in Belgium and France while she proposes a trip to the Aran Islands, the last remaining stronghold of Gaelic. It seems a small difference of plans, but there are implications: Gretta once knew a boy from that district and never told Gabriel about him. The revelation is shattering, even at this late date. But personal agony is subsidiary to the main event here: the singing of Irish tunes by a cast whose voices range from great to superb. Many of the best arrangements are ensemble pieces: “Kate Kearney” and “Parnell’s Plight” are traditional sounding sentimental tunes rarely heard over here. But the individual numbers like “The Three Jolly Pigeons” led by Freddy (Cole Nesmith) are more interesting and challenge the propriety of the party. “Naughty Girls” (led by Julie, Kate and Mary Jane) was very risqué, and Freddy returns with the nearly punk “Raise the Dead” which caused their landlord to pound on the floor. Ah, but this is Ireland, and you wouldn’t shush the singer, would you? But the most potent song is “D’Arcy’s Aria”, a beautiful operatic number presented by John Murray as Mr. D’Arcy; it’s given to Aunt Kate when she is in extremis and it’s the highlight of the evening.

I can’t say I know anything new about 1904 Ireland, but all my stereotypes are reinforced: there are the poor, there are the middle class, and there are the wealthy, and each stands in awe and fear of the others. Ireland may be beautiful and maudlin, but the Irish can take just about any passing piece of daily life and breathe life and misery and hope into it. That’s what makes tonight shine: we aren’t holly jolly or looking for a lost season. Rather we are just getting together in the best of times and worst of times, and making do with what we have – each other. Join us in that toast.

For more information on Mad Cow, please visit http://www.madcowtheatre.com

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