Every Second Shines in Inis Nua’s Dublin by Lamplight

by Debra Miller
Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent

What do you get when you cross Commedia dell’arte stylizations with Irish story-telling with Kabuki make-up? One of the best productions of the Philadelphia theater season: Inis Nua’s Dublin by Lamplight.


Set in 1904, the socio-political play is a fictionalized interweaving of the foundation of the Irish National Theatre, the struggle for an independent Ireland, and the visit of the King of England to Dublin. With a subplot of unrequited love, the complex story is presented through a unique fusion of dialogue, direct address narration, song, slapstick, mime, piano accompaniment, and a play-within-a-play.

Under the seamless direction of Tom Reing, the mix is precise and utterly enthralling. The focus here is on the confluence of the visual and performing arts—on those elements needed to take a play from page to stage, from the original text to the aural and visual delights that define great theater, while still maintaining the beauty and soul of the written language. Dublin by Lamplight excels on all counts.

Not a second is wasted in the fast-paced production, in which six actors play forty characters. Based on its premier at Dublin’s Corn Exchange, human expressiveness is at the heart of the story and the staging. According to Reing, four universal emotions–happiness, sadness, anger, and fear–provide the foundation for the performers. They expertly employ postures, gestures, and facial expressions, given emphasis by Maggie Baker’s colorful costumes and white-face make-up, to convey a clear message about what they’re feeling and how we should respond.

Through the players’ sharp head turns, the audience’s attention is directed to the focal point of the action in commedia dell’arte style. Using a bare stage, with only a single chair and valise, the viewer envisions the imaginary sets and props implied by the actors through mime, without a moment of disbelief. Charlie DelMarcelle provides a tour-de-force of physical theater with his Chaplinesque agility as the national theatre’s co-founder Willy. Megan Bellwoar offers a powerful performance as the actress/activist Eva, while Mike Dees as Martyn masters both the accent and the ego of the Irish actor he portrays with comic foppishness. Jared Michael Delaney is menacing as Frank, who abandons his pregnant girlfriend “to act for Ireland,” and Kevin Meehan is heartbreaking as the jilted suitor Jimmy, whose plight elicited sympathetic sighs from the captivated audience at the performance I attended.

From the witty opening curtain speech (delivered in character by the entire ensemble) to the heart-wrenching finale (featuring rising star Sarah Van Auken), the cast is uniformly superb, maintaining a balance between humor and pathos, between grand historic themes and intimate personal stories. If you love great theater, don’t miss this!

Part of the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival, Dublin by Lamplight runs through May 14, at Broad Street Ministry, 315 South Broad Street; for tickets, affordably priced at $20-25, call 215.454.9776, or visit the company’s website at www.inisnuatheatre.org.

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