Can six actors play 40 characters while wearing painted-on masks?
We’re about to find out. The Inis Nua Theatre Company’s production of the ground-breaking play, “Dublin by Lamplight,” opens on April 27 at Broad Street Ministry on the Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia.
The play is set in 1904 when the King of England is paying a visit to Dublin where Republican sentiment is high and the atmosphere volatile. At the same time, a group of actors in the “Irish National Theatre of Ireland” are trying to put on a play called “The Wooing of Emer.” While the company producer is doing a little wooing himself—of a local rich woman who is leading protests against the British and whom he hopes will fund the play—his brother is gathering explosives to protest in his own way.
Inis Nua Artistic Director Tom Reing has been waiting a long time to bring the play to the US. He first saw it in 2004 when he was training at England’s Corn Exchange Theatre Company. Written by Michael West, whose “A Play on Two Chairs” was Inis Nua’s debut play, “Dublin by Lamplight” was directed at the Corn Exchange by Chicago-born Annie Ryan, who is also West’s wife. It wasn’t until Reing was able to get funding (and not by wooing any local rich women) that he was able to afford to produce a play with six actors. (And he’s not saving money by making them play 40 parts—it’s in the play.)
“It’s a dream come true for me,” Reing says. “This is the play that inspired me to start Inis Nua and we’re finally doing it.”
There’s more than a hint of Commedia dell’arte about “Dublin by Lamplight.” In the Italian style, the actors’ faces are painted to look like masks, so their characters and emotions are revealed instead by their voices, facial contortions and physical movements. It’s also true to Corn Exchange Theatre Company’s mantra, says Reing: “dancing on the razor’s edge between the grotesque, the heartfelt, and anything for a cheap gag.”
Funding for the play, which came from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, the Wyncote Foundation, the Charlotte Cushman Foundation and the Independence Foundation, also allowed Reing to bring in musician and composer John Lionarons to provide an original score.
“The music underscores the entire piece. It makes it feel like a silent move soundtrack but obviously we have dialogue,” Reing says.
Though Inis Nua’s season of Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh plays are usually staged at the Adrienne Theatre on Sansom Street, “Dublin by Lamplight” will unfold in the Sunday school room of the Broad Street Ministry which now occupies the Chambers Wylie Presbyterian Church, a Gothic Revival Church built in 1901, right across from the Kimmel Center. The setting couldn’t be more apt.
“There are six archways on two floors where all the classrooms were and the center of the room where they used to have choir practice is what we’re using for the performance,” says Reing. “Since the play takes place in 1904, we’re getting a lot of mileage out of the setting. We knew we couldn’t use the Adrienne because the style needed depth and height. We use only one chair, our only set piece, with a backdrop. The physicality transforms the stage. There’s a lot of ambiance.”
And, like many Irish plays, it is “riotously funny,” Reing says, “and then at the very end. . .well, I’m not going to tell you.”
You won’t have to wait for it for too long. Preview night is April 26, and the play officially opens April 27 and runs till May 14. Tickets are $20, $25 and $30 and can be ordered online or by emailing the box office at email@example.com.
The play stars Jared Michael Delaney, Mike Dees, Kevin Meehan, Charles Delmarcelle, Megan Belwar, and Sarah Van Auken. Makeup by Maggie Baker.