Tir Na n’Og

A Travelling Light Theater Company Production
Directed and Adapted by Greg Banks
from the film "Into the West" written by Jim Sheridan
The New Victory Theatre/ 209 West 42nd Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

As one who has recently made a good deal of his living writing shows for young audiences, I recognized the earmarks of kindred spirits as soon as the curtain at The New Victory rose on their latest family-theatre import, this one called "Tir Na n’Og" from England but set in Ireland. The earmarks were–are–a simple modular set, built for mobile use, easy to put up in any venue, easy to strike, able to fit neatly into a minivan that goes from one young audience venue to another. The onstage personnel, according to the program, would consist of three actors, two musicians; a not unusual complement of bodies (in my experience the max is six). Because the New Victory presentation is a bigger deal than most, this particular engagement would benefit from a decent sound system and some rudimentary (though effective) lighting design–but clearly this would have to be a show that could survive in a reconfigured school cafeteria. (Indeed, and for obvious reasons, the name of the theatre company in question is Travelling Light–which is probably also a pun, when you think about it.)

By survive, I mean hold the kids’ attention for 60 to 75 minutes (longer is possible, but pushing it). And do so on the strengths of its storytelling, its showmanship, its forward moving energy and its ability to work on the imagination–because with such a limited physical production, it is the power of suggestion that creates the visceral and paradoxically more real sense of scope and place.

Oh, and one other thing needs to be present: this one doesn’t hold true for all young audience shows certainly, but it’s absolutely mandatory for a story of any depth, about complex emotions and issues.

It has to work for grownups too.

The misperception is that "keeping the grownups entertained as well" somehow makes it a better show, but that’s not really the point. The point is, you’re raising the bar for the kids. By not writing or performing down to them, you make them reach higher, stretch to new levels, come to grips with new ideas.

I suppose every artist working in this arena has his own philosophy about how to do this; mine has always been absurdly easy: honor certain commonsense guidelines with regard to language and subject matter–and otherwise simply tell the story you feel passionate about, as you would tell it to anybody. It’s astonishing how well that works, and how unfailingly children respond to it.

It would seem to have been the guiding principle for the show’s adapter and director, Greg Banks, who saw a 1993 Irish film called "Into the West" (screenplay by Jim Sheridan) and found himself unable to get the story out of his head. And certainly it is a haunting tale. This synopsis, mostly from the press release, with a few added details in brackets:

"…a gritty, touching tale of a Dublin family and the magical, white horse who changes their lives forever. Named Tir Na n’Og–after the mystical land under the sea where youth springs eternal–the horse propels [the motherless siblings] Finn [and] Ally, and their heartbroken[, alcoholic and widowed] Pa into a pell-mell adventure, that takes them from their grubby tenement home back to the wind-swept, Irish coast of their ancestors." One might add that the adaptation is not only fluid and suspenseful, but subtly leitmotivic and poetic.

The story makes use of over 20 characters, all played by the three actors, in this case Craig Edwards, David Annen and Cerianne Roberts. For a veteran of young audience theatre, it’s not quite so amazing that this is among the feats to be performed–the playing of multiple roles is coin of the realm, a basic part of the vocabulary. But what is amazing–even astonishing, despite my intimate familiarity with the mind stretching techniques YA theatre often puts to use–is how boldly, efficiently and courageously Mr. Banks and his cohorts go about it. The actors never leave the stage. There are no costume changes beyond perhaps the quick donning of an available hat or the hiking up of a shirt collar, maneuvers that starkly low-tech. Yet that is enough–and more often less than that, sometimes merely a change of posture or voice–to effect a shift from one character to another…occasionally within the breath of a single sentence.

The set, designed by Katie Sykes is equally evocative. A kind of abstract hodgepodge of ranch imagery, dominated by two unsymmetrical corral-fence units, its configuration allows author and actors to suggest a city street, a tenement apartment, a railroad yard, wide-open countryside and any number of other locations and objects. The phrase "the magic of theatre" gets used too glibly too often–but with "Tir Na n’Og" it is almost an understatement.

The trio of actors are an ensemble the equal of any A-List company on or off Broadway, their musician compatriots, Fiona Barrow on the fiddle, Thomas Johnson on the accordian, equally sensitive to the nuances as they support the proceedings with Mr. Johnson’s evocative underscoring.

As with most of the New Victory offerings, "Tir Na n’Og" will be in New York for a paltry two weeks, playing its last in-town performance on February 13. Not even time to scratch the surface of all the artistic good it can do. But it’s what theatre is about–really about. Which is the power to transform the spirit. So grab your kids and go.

And if you don’t have any kids, let yourself be one. It’s all the excuse you need…

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