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A CurtainUp Review
By Paulanne Simmons
The long voyage, the dramatic escape, the hero’s welcome that made history as the very first ticker-tape parade in New York City, all is certainly the material for great drama. The proof is now at the Irish Arts Center where Catalpa, written and performed by Donal O’Kelly, is making its New York premiere. O’Kelly is a talented writer and actor who has gathered an impressive array of awards. Catalpa alone has received Edinburgh Fringe First, London Time Out Critics’ Choice, and Melbourne International Festival awards. it is indeed impressive.
With the help of music composed and performed by Trevor Knight, and Ronan Fingleton’s light and sound design, O’Kelly tells the story as an epic film. He produces the sound effects, describes the camera shots and plays all the roles — including the whales and the seagulls. A single drape turns O’Kelly into Anthony’s wife, Greta and various other female characters. O’Kelly also directs.
O’Kelly creates images with his supple body and expressive voice. With words such as "Over the port you glide, the masts of the stocky whaling vessels draw strange loops as the ships pitch and bob," he draws the audience into the time and place of his story. At the same time, O’Kelly delineates a multitude of personalities — from old dead women (Anthony’s mother-in-law, who made him promise on her deathbed never to return to the sea) to crusty sailors.
So why, this reviewer must ask herself, did the the nearly two hours in which O’Kelly tells his story fail to enthrall her? Perhaps it was the overload of information. Or it could have been the profusion of characters that after a while seemed to dissolve into each other. Or the sound effects, which after a while seemed more intrusive than effective.
Catalpa might make an excellent movie if an enterprising producer decided to option the property. But in O’Kelly’s version it is neither movie nor stage play nor narrative, but rather a bit of all three. For some this mixture of forms might be exciting and innovative. For others it can be confusing and stultifying. It is so idiosyncratic it is impossible to predict how any individual will react to it. Advising anyone not to see the show might deprive that person of a wonderful theatrical experience. On the other hand, endorsing the show with no caveat might lead some into an evening they might find disappointing.
With that in mind, let it be noted that Catalpa is an excellent show for people who like to be told stories in great detail, who have great patience and, who have considerable focusing ability. Others should spend their time and money on less challenging material.