By Joseph Hurley
INVASIONS AND LEGACIES, by and with Tommy Makem. At Irish Repertory Theater. Extended through Oct. 14.
For Tommy Makem to do a show without singing a note is a little bit like Tiger Woods going to Scotland to play St. Andrew’s and leaving his clubs at the airport.
That, however, is precisely what the folk singer and songwriter does, at least in the first half of the new solo show, "Invasions and Legacies," which he brought to the Irish Repertory Theatre last week and which will remain there for a limited run ending Thursday evening, Oct. 14, the unconventional mid-week closing being mandated by a previous booking elsewhere.
In a program note, the performer, best known, perhaps, for his long association with the Clancy Brothers, describes the first half of his new show as "an epic prose poem celebrating the mythological history of Ireland written and performed by Tommy Makem."
Standing on a platform of artificial grass, raised some six inches or so above the stage floor and formed in the shape of the map of Ireland, Makem, with a brace of musicians seated behind him, rambles through what amounts to an Irish creation myth, with a pair of pre-history cronies, a monk and a herdsman, exchanging tall tales as they sit before the fire, enjoying what appears to be a startlingly contemporary meal composed of cheese, meat, bread, honey and brown ale.
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Every so often in the hour-long recitation, Makem pauses while the musicians, Ronnie D’Addario on guitar and Bob Mastro on violin, fill in with what might be thought of as brief chapter headings.
But Makem, dressed in austere black, featuring a massively sleeved, flowing overblouse which makes him look a bit like a pregnant preacher, never sings. The audience seems to expect to hear his voice each time the musicians take over, but it never happens, not until after the intermission, with a segment the program announces as "Part 2: Tommy Makem in Concert."
The verdant green platform that is the evening’s home base comes, in time, to resemble a putting green on a miniature golf course, while, arching above it, Klara Zieglerova’s stage design presents a rainbow of plasterboard cut-outs represents familiar symbols and mythological animals drawn, mainly, from the Book of Kells.
One fanciful creature, looking somewhat like a cross between a German shepherd and a crocodile, positioned at stage level, appears fully capable of having a go at the star, should he venture too near as he declaims.
Makem’s odd, rambling discourse is not without its charms, as, to cite one example, he describes Irish ducks crouching in a field "quietly quacking in contentment."
Elsewhere there is, it seems, a reference to "gopher wood," an appealing locution unsupported by Webster’s, but appealing nevertheless.
Too often, however, there are turns of phrase describing things like "the years, passing with predictable regularity," or something fairly close to that.
At the opening night performance, it was clear that Makem hadn’t become entirely comfortable with his own text, a situation that will, of course, improve with additional playing.
After the intermission, the performer and his back-up musicians are solidly on home ground, with a too-brief little recital lasting not much more than half an hour and leaving the audience genuinely wanting more.
The concert phase of the endeavor encompasses some nine songs, apparently mainly of Makem’s making, interlarded with comments, informal and charming, primarily about the star’s upbringing in the small South Armagh town of Cady.
One anecdote has to do with the neighboring O’Brien family, who managed to produce 18 children, most of them troubled and difficult. Another story concerns singer Tommy Sands, cousin of the late political martyr Bobby Sands, playing him a videotape of an East German concert in which a huge audience sang along with a number Makem himself had written but virtually forgotten.
The singer finishes with a moving, powerful encore performance, of course, of "Four Green Fields." the enduringly effective number for which he will surely be long remembered.