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Theater Review Strife-torn Belfast as seen through the eyes of children

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

MOJO-MICKYBO, by Owen McCafferty. Directed by Karl Wallace. Featuring David Gorry and Richard Dormer. At the Irish Arts & Letters Festival, Quick Center for the Arts, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn. Through Saturday, April 8.

"Mojo-Mickybo," by the 39-year-old Belfast-born playwright Owen McCafferty, bears an undeniable similarity to "Frank Pig Says Hello," Patrick McCabe’s stage adaptation of his novel "The Butcher Boy."

For one thing, McCafferty’s play, like McCabe’s, employs just two young, male actors in a multiplicity of roles, the most significant of them, to which they return again and again, being young children.

For another, one of the actors, the galvanic David Gorry, played McCabe’s titular hero when the Irish Repertory Theatre produced "Frank Pig Says Hello" a few seasons ago.

Now, in McCafferty’s brief but energetic work, presented as part of the ambitious Irish Arts & Letters Festival at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts, the young Dubliner is partnered by Richard Dormer. Dormer last appeared in the area when a Lyric Theater, Belfast, revival of Brian Friel’s "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" played in Stamford a couple of years ago.

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A startling photographic slide projected on the back wall of the Quick Center’s Wein Theatre greets the "Mojo-Mickybo" audience settling in. At first the image seems to confuse some audience members, but soon enough its subject . . . and its significance . . . becomes clear.

The photograph, taken by Belfast photographer Buzz Logan in 1971, shows, close up, ordinary children’s playground swings, pulled up tight into a sort of a cluster, and held together with a chain and a padlock. The shot, taken in Belfast’s Shankill Road, might have been made in virtually any of the city’s playgrounds during the early 1970s, when the swings were locked up on Saturday nights and not freed again until Monday mornings, sending the message to one and all that the simple pleasures of childhood have no place on the Sabbath in a city at war.

The auditorium’s performing area is occupied by a large, octagonal sandbox or playpen, into which actors Gorry and Dormer tumble and roll, after running down the theaters’ central aisle.

Gorry, who also serves as the play’s quietly eloquent narrator, is Mojo, a Catholic child of perhaps 10, while Dormer is Mickybo, a Protestant boy. The short, compactly built Gorry still bears traces of the child he once was, while the lean, angular, almost gaunt dormer shows vague signs of the middle-aged man he will one day become, and both projections, into the past and into the future, serve dramatist McCafferty’s purposes admirably.

Much of the childhood play in which Mojo and Mickybo routinely indulge involves guns, violence, shooting and cruelty, since such behavior has been part of their daily lives almost since infancy.

During the course of "Mojo-Mickybo," Gorry plays, in addition to Mojo, characters ranging from both Mickybo’s drunken father and hard-pressed mother to a bus conductor, a childhood chum, and a Belfast woman known simply as "Torchwoman."

Dormer, for his part, portrays Mojo’s parents, a woman selling ice cream, "Uncle Sidney," the manager of the neighborhood movie theater, and a tormented character the children refer to as "the Major."

Both Mojo and Mickybo are strongly influenced by "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the hit 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, which they’d logically have seen a year or so before the play’s action takes place.

They mime the movie’s abundant gunplay, dream of "escaping" to Bolivia, as Butch and Sundance do in the film, and even play out their own death scenes, patterning them on those met by the characters they so ardently idolize.

Mojo and Mickybo play the sorts of games children universally engage in, adding, perhaps, a few twists of their own making. They have spitting contests, and Mickybo enjoys spitting through the mail slot of a neighbor he particularly dislikes.

Whatever they do, whatever games they invent and play, guns and death are never very far away.

As children often do, Mojo and Mickybo misunderstand some of the things they see and hear. Mojo seems to think that Australia and America are linked by some form of land bridge. They dream of a world in which "the stew cooks itself," and "the sky rains beer."

They speak of their hopes of killing the English "Major" they’ve seen in their Belfast neighborhood, and they recite a kind of motto which advises them to "love many, trust few, and paddle your own canoe."

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