In Irish folklore, the hero Oshin dwells in the land of eternal youth. Slowly he comes to miss his friends and ventures to Earth once more. But the moment he steps foot on the ground, time rushes up around him, and he's turned into an old man.
Billy Roche's "Poor Beast in the Rain," the absorbing inaugural production by the new Salem K Theatre Company, offers a modern version of that myth. In mid-1980s Ireland, the regulars at a Wexford betting shop run by taciturn Steven (Michael O'Hagan) and his daughter, Eileen (Kate Steele), gather to crank up for the Hurling Finals.
Turns out the real suspense isn't about the game but the reappearance of Danger Doyle (Andrew Connolly), the dashing bad boy who ran off with Steven's young wife. Eileen pines for her ma, oblivious to the love-struck Georgie (Christopher Carley); Danger's old mate, Joe (Kevin Kearns), can't wait to relive his wild youth, while a torn-up Molly (Joanne Whalley) torches for Danger.
This prodigal has been made into a legend by people who don't know how to move on, and his return sets their mythmaking to the test. But if Danger back in town doesn't quite set off the fireworks the play promises, that's half the point. Director Wilson Milam's intimate production compels less through plot than with lived-in verite. We feel like eavesdroppers at a corner table in set designer Laura Fine Hawkes' grungy shop, all chalk dust and sticky counters, and the fine ensemble work on view will strengthen as the run continues. Carley brims with clammy youth, while Whalley and Connolly spark and burn.
Roche has an easy way with local talk: Joe says of the slim Eileen: "there's more meat on a butcher's apron"; Molly dismisses a young flirt as "the latest little tearaway." That old Irish turn from disappointment to poetry can still cast a spell. "Poor Beast" calls out a bittersweet farewell to the past -- a lament to quiet for in loud times.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
"Poor Beast in the Rain," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 16. $25 to $30. (323) 960-4420. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Endearing and emotional 'Dead'
Intimate nuances carry "James Joyce's The Dead" at Open Fist Theatre Company. By returning Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey's delicate 2000 musical based on James Joyce's elegiac short story to its chamber origins, director-designer Charles Otte achieves a piercing immediacy.
A succes d'estime on Broadway and at the Ahmanson Theatre, "The Dead" largely adheres to Joyce's final "Dubliners" entry. As guests arrive behind the scrim that swathes designer Kis Knekt's set, Gabriel Conroy (Rob Nagle) recalls the annual Yuletide party hosted by his aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan (Jacque Lynn Colton and Judith Scarpone), and their niece, Mary Jane (Teresa Willis). Nelson's Tony-winning libretto offers an eavesdropper's perspective, driven by Davey's evocative songs. The good-humored naturalism telescopes into existential poetry after the party, when Gretta (Martha Demson), Gabriel's wife, shares a long-held secret that shatters his reality.
In tandem with fine designers, Otte stages this ephemeral material to a fare-thee-well, playing the violin in musical director Dean Mora's combo himself, and his remarkable cast follows suit. Jake Wesley Stewart's music student, Sarah Buster's political renegade, and Michael Franco and Nicola Hersh as drunken Freddy Malins and his formidable mum typify the general spontaneity, which peaks at the group dance to "Naughty Girls."
Few are trained singers, though, so prepare accordingly. Colton captures the affecting moment when Julia's voice falters midparlor song and Scarpone's pert Kate joins in to cover. Conversely, the penultimate duet between Julia and her younger self (Amy Tzagournis) cannot quite erase memories of originator Sally Ann Howes.
Similarly, Nagle's touching Gabriel and Demson's sensitive Gretta require forbearance at the finale, where their exposed feelings distort intonation in favor of emotional heft. It isn't snow falling softly at the end of this heartfelt revival but bittersweet Joycean tears.
-- David C. Nichols
"James Joyce's The Dead," Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22. $25. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
An inventive adaptation of Fo
The sad thing about playful cubs is that all too soon they become venerable old lions, so fearful and majestic that they are approached with caution.
Italian playwright Dario Fo, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for literature, certainly numbers among the lions of the modern theater. Fo ascended to fame decades ago with his distinctive mix of leftist polemics and commedia dell'arte. But there's a clear danger for present-day interpreters, who may be so overawed by Fo's reputation that they forego his righteous radicalism in favor of reverential exegesis.