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Theater Review: In ‘Catalpa,’ O’Kelly has a ship-shape show

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

CATALPA, written and performed by Donal O’Kelly. At the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. Presented by the New York Chapter of the Irish-American Cultural Association. March 5 (one show only).

One of the images you might take away from Donal O’Kelly’s inventive, amusing and frequently moving one-actor play "Catalpa" is that of a long-necked seabird, soaked with rain and ocean water, standing on the desk of a disinterested movie producer, flapping its wings and dripping onto the mogul’s papers.

Catalpa, apart from being the name of a flowering tree, was an actual American whaling ship operating in the last three decades of the 19th Century, sailing mainly out of New Bedford, Mass.

Dublin-based actor O’Kelly, last seen on a New York stage when the Gate Theatre brought its collection of plays by Samuel Beckett to Lincoln Center in the summer of 1996, is nothing if not a self-starter. "Catalpa" is just one of several widely acclaimed solo shows he’s created and performed, including "Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son," which visited the Irish Art Center about a decade ago.

"Catalpa," first produced by Waterford’s Red Kettle Theatre Company in 1995, has played periodically Ireland, with appearances in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Toronto, and, in the summer of 2000, in Washington, as part of the "Island: Arts from Ireland" Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. But it had never been performed in Manhattan until March 5, when the New York City Chapter of the Irish American Cultural Institute brought it to the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College for a single performance.

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O’Kelly’s show, which deserves another chance to play before New York audiences, has a uniquely compelling, fascinating frame, being structured as a "performance" of an unsold screenplay by a frustrated, unsuccessful writer, acted out for the benefit of a potential producer who cannot be depended upon to actually go to the trouble of reading the script.

So constructed, "Catalpa" affords author-actor O’Kelly the opportunity to play, in addition to that writer, Matthew Kidd, the ship’s American captain, George Anthony, not to mention the skipper’s wife, daughter, father-in-law and even the ghost of his mother-in-law.

Since "Catalpa" tells the story of a daring voyage the vessel actually made between April 1875, and August 1876 to the Fremantle Penal Colony in Western Australia, the objective being the rescue of a handful of Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who are imprisoned there, O’Kelly has the opportunity to play an almost uncountable number of "characters," including that seabird, a whale or two, and even the sea itself, plus those prisoners, and such legendary Fenians as John Devoy and John Breslin. Both Devoy and Breslin left published accounts of the adventure in journals of which O’Kelly made ample use in preparing his solo play.

Originally directed by the Red Kettle’s Bairbra Ní Caoimh, "Catalpa" is performed on a stage that is bare except for an expanse of white fabric rising behind O’Kelly and a length of dark blue cloth flung across a small plank behind which he stands. The sweeping white swatch, of course, suggests the ship’s sails, but it also doubles handily as a garment when the actor plays one or another of the story’s female characters, including Marie Tondut, a French maid with whom Breslin fell in love.

To O’Kelly’s right, there is a synthesizer-and-keyboard rig, on which Trevor Knight, once the co-creator, with Gay Woods, of the cult ’80s band, Auto da Fe, provides "Catalpa" with an appealing and virtually wall-to-wall musical underscoring, adding immeasurably to the work’s overall impact. The 42-year-old Dubliner’s show is a particularly interesting example of the actor-generated solo effort, not merely because of its ingeniousness and its dexterity, but because of the intensive research O’Kelly has done to ensure the detailed accuracy of his version of this notable incident in the story of Irish freedom.

Because of his wide-ranging stage experience, including Dublin productions of plays by Shakespeare, Beckett and O’Casey, among others, O’Kelly has little, if any, difficulty in keeping track of the vast array of characters who move through the two-act, 90-minute-long "Catalpa," be they Irish, English, French, or Australian, and regardless of ages stretching from childhood to extreme elderliness and even beyond, since the tale includes a ghost or two.

The slight, meticulously graceful O’Kelly takes obvious delight in socking "Catalpa" over to an appreciative audience, but nowhere does he appear to be enjoying himself more than when he becomes the embodiment of that agitated seabird, dripping and flapping away on the desk of that heedless movie man, cawing and screeching in outrage.

"Catalpa" is something as rare and special as it is unusual, and much credit is due the New York City Chapter of the IACI for including Hunter College on the show’s five-performance, four-venue agenda.

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