By Joseph Hurley
Among the physiognomies available within the human spectrum, there’s one that’s found again and again in successful stage and screen performers, and, at first glance, its description is a bit peculiar.
These individuals are unfailingly on the short side, with distinctly defined features that can be seen easily at the farthest corners of any theater and somehow reach out for the attention of any camera that happens to be operating in the area.
For example, think of Dustin Hoffman. If you’re old enough to remember "Sunset Boulevard," think of Gloria Swanson. For that matter, think of the late Ethel Merman. Or Robin Williams. And the list goes on.
Today, there’s an abundantly gifted young Irish-Canadian actor fitting that description and just hovering on the edges of something approaching a career breakthrough.
Born in Dublin, where he spent part of his early childhood before moving to Canada with his family, 27-year-old Sean Power has given no fewer than five utterly galvanizing performances in the New York City area in the course of the last year. Even so, his name is probably unknown to you, the reason being the odd venues where those all that fine work took place.
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Most recently, Power could be seen in basement of a Korean Presbyterian church in the Woodlawn Heights section of the Bronx, where the Macalla Theatre Company’s strong production of Daniel Magee’s "Paddywack" played through Monday night.
Power’s stature and general disposition have sometimes combined to land him jobs throughout his relatively young career. "They were looking for someone short and angry," he said of one of the Canadian engagements of his early career. "I remember telling them, ‘Then I’m your man."
The actor’s relative anonymity is easily explain, despite the fact that he seems to be working more or less continuously. It’s all a question of location.
In "Paddywack", the versatile Power played a devious Cockney racist inhabitant of a boarding house in London’s heavily Irish Kilburn district, a deranged, hate-filled individual who triggers the plays shocking and violent climax. It was remarkable performance, start to finish.
But it happening in the church basement at 240th Street and Martha Avenue, a spot hardly on the beaten path trod by most theatergoers.
It was in the very same auditorium, with its concrete floor and its metal folding chairs, that the actor gave another standout performance about a year ago, in Belfast playwright Martin Lynch’s "Rinty." Actually, in that graceful and charming production, deftly
directed by Macalla’s then-artistic director, Donald Creedon, Power gave a small series of performances, playing various figures in the life of the play’s hero, the late boxer and musician John Joseph Monaghan, widely known as Rinty.
Following the brief, successful Woodlawn Heights run of Lynch’s play, the actor did a single performance of "Stuck," a one-actor play he’d done earlier in Toronto, and then at New York’s Here Theater on Sixth Avenue. That one later performance of "Stuck" took place at An Beal Bocht, an Irish bar on West 238th Street in the Bronx, done mainly for the benefit of Power’s "Rinty" colleagues and a few friends.
Then, in April, the actor appeared at La Mama, in Owen Sadie’s "Jews and Jesus," a musical in which he played an American-born rabbinical student named Nick who journeys from Long Island’s Great Neck to Isr’l and somewhere along the way begins to believe he’s the messiah.
The show, with music and lyrics by Ronnie Cohen, is currently in rehearsal for a revival at La Mama, starting on Friday, just four days after Power finished his work in "Paddywack." This run of "Jews and Jesus" will be a bit longer, ending on Dec. 16, and being performed six times each week, whereas, for the earlier stand, it was done just three time a week.
In all probability, the most ambitious and demanding assignment Sean Power took on in recent months involved the Gorilla Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s "Henry IV, Parts I & II," staged in the open air at the Henry Street Settlement’s home on Grand Street on the Lower East Side. The experiences was a lot like what playing in Elizabethan England must have been, with orange sellers and other vendors moving among the standing groundlings, while the actors tried to complete the on stage text.
In both plays, the actor played Prince Hal, the fun-loving and somewhat delinquent youth who eventually became King Henry V. Standing just 5-foot-6, Power might not be the actor a director might immediately think of for the role, but Mark Greenfield cast him, and the results were entirely salubrious. Despite the fact that the actor faced a different King Henry IV and a different Falstaff in each half of the lengthy play.
Performed in front of, on, and behind a series of curved concrete steps facing the endless vehicular traffic of Grand Street, with the audience coming and going at will, the task of creating a coherent and cohesive Prince Hall was a daunting task, but one Power met with relative ease.
He had, after all, done considerable Shakespeare in Canada, including a standout Demetrius an Irish director Joe Dowling’s celebrated production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" at he world-famous Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario.
The actor, never comfortable around canines, if not actually afraid of them, once played Lance in Shakespeare’s "Two Gentleman of Verona," a character who owns a dog, Crab, and plays all his scenes with him. "He was just a little fellow," Power said by way of explanation.
Power is one to two sons of an Irish father and an Italian mother, both of whom had immigrated to Canada, where they met and married. The actor was born in Dublin because, at one point early in their marriage, the couple decided to give Ireland a try. After a time, they returned to Canada and settled in Toronto.
When the actor graduated from Canada’s National Theater School, he found work in Toronto and elsewhere in the country reasonably plentiful. His engagement at Stratford, in fact, started in the 1992-1993 season, when he was barely out of school. Dowling’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" was followed by Albert Milair’s production of Moliere’s "The Imaginary Invalid," in which Power played Thomas and Bonnefoy’s Clerk.
Eventually, however, as happens to most actors in Canada, he began to wonder how he might make out if he were to try New York.
"You reach a kind of glass ceiling in Canada," he said, "and you find yourself eager to find out what might happen to you beyond the country’s borders. And even though a lot of Canadians don’t like to admit it, New York is still a powerful magnet, and it always will be."
Power is realistic enough to know that no matter how good a Macalla production in Woodlawn Heights was, and director Mickey Kelly’s staging of "Paddywack" was very good and very strong, the number of people who saw it in its Bronx run is small, and, to be brutal about it, not many of them will have been in a position to do him or any of the other actors much good in terms of career.
When "Jews and Jesus" reopens a week from Friday, Sean Power will at least be working for a while on East 4th Street in Manhattan. He’ll also be having fun.
"There are about 20 songs in the show," he said. "There’s a four-piece band on stage, with some of the songs reflecting traditional klezmer music and others being more modern."