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Kingfishers Catch Fire

Oh no, so that's it. After all you want to convert me. Despite your protestations to the contrary you want to save my soul, hm? I am to be the big catch am I? After all, your clever, witty denials, your charming, self-effacing attitudes to orthodox religion, you would be a fisher of men. Hm? You want to go back to Rome with the biggest fish of all in your bag. Look at what I have landed, you will boast: The monster of the deep: SS Colonel Herbert Kappler prostrate before a crucifix!— Herbert Kappler
Haskell King and Sean Gormley (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty and Nazi Colonel Herbert Kappler make strange bedfellows in Robin Glendinning's two-act play Kingfishers Catch Fire, which is making its world premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre's 2nd Stage. Based on a true story, and unobtrusivelyy directed by Kent Paul, this drama gives fresh meaning to that timeless biblical saw: The wolf will live with the lamb.

The drama takes place in post World War IItaly. Monsignor O'Flaherty (Sean Gormley), a notary at the Vatican, visits his old nemesis SS Colonel Herbert Kappler (Haskell King), serving a life-sentence in a prison cell at the Aragonese-Angevine Castle.

At the beginning Kappler suspects that O'Flaherty has come only to gloat over his grim fate. But towards the end of Act 2, he's gradually come to realize that his former rival is truly sincere about wanting him to look beyond the engines of war and his own role in perpetuating it, and confront his own soul and redemption. Several months pass between the two acts, but it's during thos months that a real friendship began to bloom between these men. It's a quiet miracle happening in an unlikely place.

To fully appreciate Kingfishers. . . go early so that you can check out the glossary in the program and read the mini-biographies of the two personages as well as of Pope Pius XII. Though the Pontiff remains off stage throughout but both O'Flaherty and Kappler will invoke his name when they heatedly debate how the Vatican remained officially neutral throughout World War II.

There are other pertinent historical events and terms about this little-known post-war story. Familiar with the "White Line" in Rome? I wasn't. But it did exist and captures the more theatrical side of Kappler's personality. To wit: As Nazi police chief in Rome, Kappler ordered a white line painted on the cobblestones in St. Peter's Square to demarcate the Vatican's neutral position as a sovereign state. These notes also tell us about the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, one of the darkest episodes of that period. This ruthless action was taken by German forces on March 24, 1944 aliation for the deaths of 33 German soldiers. Kappler played a chief part in the abattoir, executing 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves, including 57 Jews.

Kingfishers. . . is built on a fragile line of action. Its characters already have lived out their glory days in the war and history already has judged them: O'Flaherty has become elevated as a hero (He was nicknamed the"Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican" for his clever disguises and hiding Allied Servicemen and Jews from the Nazis); Kappler was demonized and convicted for his crimes against humanity.

It difficult to dramatize such heavy material. Yet Glendinning' doe so convincingly. And it's strangely exhilarating to see these former rivals in the same room together, punching holes in each other's arguments and plumbing the depths of Christian theology and the Bible. What's more, the play not in any sense dully sentimental. O'Flaherty doesn't come across as a proselytizing Catholic priest (he wasn't one in real-life).

Neither does the author mooth over Kappler's rough edges or spiritual skepticism. When Act 1 closes out, with Kappler and O'Flaherty at loggerheads on the subjects of morality and personal culpabilit.y kappler vehemently shouts "Get out O'Flaherty. Get out of my sight." And after O'Flaherty leaves the cell, Kappler doesn't stop mocking him with a volley of execrations that underscore his then atheistic leanings: "Long live the Gods of the Greeks. Long live Zeus! Long live Hera, and long live Athena and Aphrodite!"

Though Kappler eventually would became a convert to Roman Catholicism, the playwright emphasizes that his conversion from persecutor to Christian certainly didn't follow St. Paul's famous conversion with God's voice dramatically descending from the heavens..

Gormley's Monsignor O'Flaherty is every inch the Catholic priest with spiritual ambitions. King is spot on as the former Nazi Colonel but eventualy reveals his character's human side — most remarkably when he talks about his adopted son and former wife.

Kent Paul directs Kingfishers. . . in a realistic fashion, which makes it as grim as needs be. With the creative assistance of Edward Morris (set designer), Matthew McCarthy (lighting), and Linda Fisher (costume design), Paul is able to transport the audience to the claustrophobic space of Kappler's jail cell and then lets the characters do the rest. His interpretation of this historical event is consistently carried out , and by play's end, you get a good sense of who O'Flaherty and Kappler were in real-life.

If you are wondering about the peculiar title, it comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet. It's evident that the playwright was bent on appropriating the poem's theme of"inner harmony" to his own work as well as its striking imagery of a modern Christian.

Although the piece is superbly staged and acted, it touches on very sensitive material. In short, this is not light entertainment. However, who go will have a rare theatrical experience that will linger after the house lights go down.

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Kingfishers Catch Fire by Robin Glendinning
Directed by Kent Paul
Cast: Sean Gormley (Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty), Haskell King (Herbert Kappler).
Sets: Edward Morris
Sound: Rob Rees
Lighting: Matthew McCarthy
Costumes: Linda Fisher
Properties: Sven Henry Nelson
Stage Manager: Fran Rubenstein
Irish Repertory Theatre (at the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre), 132 W. 22nd Street. Tickets: $45 - $50. Phone 212-727-2737 or online at
From 9/11/19; opening 9/22/19; closing 10/20/19.
Wednesdays at 3pm and 8pm; Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm.
Running time: 1 hour: 50 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 9/20/19

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