Each March brings the annual Irish Players of Rochester production, and this year the group has chosen a modern day comedy with a Mephistophelean twist. "The Seafarer," which opened this weekend at MuCCC, is categorized as "an Irish comedy with tragic possibilities." Essentially, it's a black comedy with plenty of humor on morbid or weighty topics, which is something Irish dramatists have always done well.
Contemporary Dublin playwright Conor McPherson ("The Weir," "Shining City") debuted the play in 2006 as both author and director, and garnered multiple Tony Award nominations by 2008. The name of the play is drawn from an Old English elegy of the same name. The 124-line poem is a first person tale of a man's solo journey at sea. Like the play's dark comic nature, the poem is a lament of sorts, but a moral lesson shines through the narrative.
The plot is set in present day Ireland and follows James "Sharky" Harkin (Tom Bigongiari), who moves back to his home in Baldoyle (a coastal area just outside Dublin) to take care of his brother Richard (John Jaeger), who's recently gone blind. Christmas Eve arrives, and Richard invites a few visitors over to play poker: their liquor-loving friend Ivan (Ken Dauer), neighbor Nicky (Gregory Ludek), and Nicky's friend Mr. Lockhart (Mark John Donahue).
Director Jean Ryon, who's directed often with IPR in the past, has selected a skilled cast for the five-man show and guides them deftly. Sharing the "lead" roles are Bigongiari, who is a fresh face in the IPR, and Jaeger, who's been nominated for many awards with the group in years previous. The actors are convincing as an aging, brotherly duo learning to live together again and resenting one another, yet caring for each other deep down.
Bigongiari establishes an emotional connection with the audience as he navigates the struggles of a recovering alcoholic with a past, while Jaeger's Irish lilt and portrayal of blindness are simply stunning in their authenticity. Playing their old friend Ivan is Dauer, who has held many local roles. While his accent wavers between Rochesterian and Irish, Dauer captures the duality of a man who is a sensitive and caring friend but a less-than-ambitious head of his household. Gregory Ludek, another IPR veteran, plays Nicky, who's an old friend of the family and a bit of a man about town.
Joining Bigongiari in his IPR debut is Mark John Donahue, who has appeared in several Shakespeare Players productions at Highland Bowl. As Mr. Lockhart, Donahue brings a multifaceted performance that carries act two with its intensity, and his soliloquies -- some of the play's best writing -- are truly chilling.
This is a play that relies on fast, witty chunks of dialogue. Add Irish accents, cues, line memorization -- and this small cast had their work cut out for them. Fortunately, it's a challenge to find a weak link among the ensemble. The five actors remain truly alert throughout the two and a half hour run, and it keeps the show engaging.
The set is built to look like the inside of a ramshackle coastal cottage, with smudged walls, rundown furniture and a potbellied stove. As set designers and prop masters Ken and Kathy Dauer have created a painstakingly accurate living room, with a glimpse into the kitchen. The only thing that's a little confusing is the front door area, which also suggests a staircase, window, and landing all in the same place. However, the layout doesn't impede the play's effectiveness, so it's not worth overthinking.
Kathy Dauer also designed costumes -- Richard's crusty sweater, in particular, is a triumph. Real food and drink is consumed onstage, a strong choice in such an intimate space where empty cups and plates would be spotted by sharp-eyed theatregoers who crave a touch of legitimacy. Although the music was a little inconsistent during scene changes and didn't direct the mood as it could have, the sound effects (which mostly encompassed household noises) were well done.
"The Seafarer" will be performed again at the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival in Milwaukee on May 27. The Irish Players of Rochester has been part of the festival since 2003, and the group has taken home many awards for individual and ensemble performances (next year, the festival will take place in Rochester).
"The Seafarer" is, without a doubt, one of the most captivating shows to appear at MuCCC in months -- and it's absolutely worth making time to attend.