Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival continues through the end of September, with last performances on October 2nd. But though September winds down, the talent coming out of this festival certainly does not. 1st Irish is all about celebrating Irish arts and culture, but this isn’t what makes the plays unique. It isn’t that the shows are explicitly about Ireland, or Irish stereotypes, or celebrated Irish symbols. Instead, each play is personal, intimate, and ultimately, grounded in human emotion. And yet, each addition to the festival’s lineup has a kind of Irish flair that isn’t usually found in typical Off-Broadway shows. There is a young girl who is almost undone by the gossip and sexual stigmas of her small Irish hometown. There is a man whose identity is tethered to the town that his father and grandfather before him both tried to carve a life out of. There is a woman in love who is astonished to discover that through the eyes of an outsider, Ireland is beautiful; even more so because the people of Ireland are beautiful. These stories are not about Ireland – but they are products of Ireland, and whether boldly or subtly, steeped in modern Irish culture.
Bursting back onto the New York stage with her second play is Sonya Kelly. The delightful How to Keep an Alien marks Kelly’s return to Origin’s 1st Irish Festival after the success of her 2013 show, I Can See Clearly Now (The Wheelchair on my Face): another autobiographical romp set against the backdrop of modern Ireland. An Irish writer and actor, her How to Keep an Alien is all about love, aliens (the illegal kind, not the extraterrestrial kind), and yes, Ireland – or at least the Irish government. “If you’ve never had a passionate romance while rehearsing a Russian play with English accents in an Irish castle, I can highly recommend it,” Kelly tells us, grinning mischievously. It’s a true story of Kelly and her partner, “Kate from Queensland,” who wants to live in Ireland despite the fact that “sunshine is only a rumour” and the lack of decent avocados. But alien love must be proved to the government. If there’s one thing that Sonya Kelly wants to say, it’s that falling in love “takes a hell of a lot of paperwork.”
How to Keep an Alien, a production of Rough Magic Theatre Company, is presented at the Irish Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen. The show has landed in New York with Origin after touring Ireland, as well as performances in Edinburgh and London. A wonderful quirk of Kelly’s show is the involvement of her stage manager, Paul Curley, who charmingly acts as a sort of prop for Kelly. During the course of the mostly-one-man-show, Curley serves as a detested choreographer, a drunk Irish couple, the drum accompaniment to Kelly’s failed stand-up gig, and many more. In fact, he steps in anywhere he is needed, turning the play into what Kelly described as a “one-and-three-quarter person” show in an article in The Irish Echo.
With How to Keep an Alien, it’s hard not to fall in love with Sonya Kelly and her curious mix of autobiography, stand-up comedy, and one-man-show. She’s immediately familiar and utterly relatable, even if you haven’t had an “adventure with an alien.”
Meanwhile, at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, Queens, Origin holds a series called Throwback Thursdays. The event celebrates hit shows from the festival’s nine-year history. Highlighted this year is Great White American Teeth, directed by Origin’s very own George Heslin, and The Cure by Conal Creedon.
Touted as “a welcome reminder that a new generation of Irish playwrights are writing about modern Ireland” by the festival program, The Cure certainly delivers. The play is a one-man-show featuring Michael Mellamphy, who won Best Actor in Origin’s 2013 1st Irish Festival, reprising his role as a Cork City native: bitter, frank, washed-up, but also tender, a dreamer. With nothing but pure expressiveness, Mellamphy commands the room, veritably transforming the hall of the New York Irish Center into the streets of Cork City. Pacing among the audience, he is able to conjure up real characters that you can all but reach out and touch. Creedon’s script is vivid and absolutely transporting, and it’s no wonder that 1st Irish decided to bring the play back three years after its premiere.
Another great feature of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival is the Next Generation series, meant to showcase new plays in workshop productions. One of the featured plays this year is Dorothy of Nowhere by Thomas Burns Scully. Born last year out of Origin’s W.B. Yeats Emerging Playwright Competition, Dorothy of Nowhere is at once intense, tragic, and terribly funny. It centers on a teenage girl, Dorothy, living in a small town in Ireland who is at once discovering herself as both a talented poet and as a sensual being. Through her relationships with her mother, her boyfriend, and an eccentric new friend, Dorothy explores herself and the world around her. Burns Scully said he was intrigued by a recurring theme of heritage in Yeats’s poems. “I was particularly drawn to his later work; he wrote these poems about love and sex from a female point of view called The Lady’s Songs…so gradually this story about three generations of women, poetry, and sex started to evolve.” Moreover, Burns Scully explained that he tried to keep the play “grounded in [the] characters’ wants and pains, longings and senses of humor.” The result is a very real, incredibly touching story.
In many ways, Dorothy of Nowhere represents what makes the 1st Irish Theatre Festival so special. Written, acted, and directed by a talented cast from Ireland, the UK, and the States, the show combines the hallmarks of Irish culture with the narrative of modern Ireland: an homage to W.B. Yeats, and a compelling struggle to define oneself, whether through poetry, love, family, or friends. “It’s really something special,” said Burns Scully. “The goodwill it’s engendered… it feels like it’s grown very quickly into something that’s bigger than me. If we could get an audience to leave crying and laughing, that would be special. There should be a lot of both, if we do our jobs right.”
Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival is certainly one of the treasures of New York theater. The festival offers a unique, invaluable stage for discovering Irish artists and Irish culture, true. But 1st Irish is also comprised of writers, directors, actors, and more whose passion and devotion to their work is evident in each of production of the festival. The shows put on by 1st Irish are funny, relatable, thought-provoking, heart-warming, complex, and everything in between. Time and time again, play by play, 1st Irish proves itself an event not to be missed.