Irish culture has been a major tributary of New York City’s makeup at least since the mid-nineteenth century potato famine–witness the prominence of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral if you have any doubt. But there’s a new infusion of Irish wit, soul, and brilliance into New York every year now, created by Origin Theatre.
Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival may just be the best kept secret of the New York City theater world. Helmed by Artistic Director George Heslin, the festival is entering its ninth year and, according to its website, “will have presented more than 162 Irish playwrights to New York audiences” by the time it closes on October 2nd.
The 1st Irish Theatre Festival dedicates itself to celebrating “the best of Irish theatre,” though their lineup also includes actors and artists from all over Europe and the United States
Also featured in this year’s 1st Irish Festival is the New York Times-acclaimed Bears in Space. (“Bears. That Are In Space.”) The show promises galactic hilarity, but delivers so much more: a heartfelt story, loveable characters (be they good or evil), and a sudden, strange appreciation for puppets that you may not have known existed before. Bears in Space is the work of Collapsing Horse, a theatre company founded in 2012 which produces self-described “comic, lo-fi, spectacular, tactile and virtuosic work that leaves performers really, really sweaty at the end.”
The show comprises a four-man cast who are also the show’s writer, composer, sound designer, puppet designer, and two of the company’s co-founders, Jack Gleeson (of Game of Thrones) and Aaron Heffernan. Heffernan’s bio in the program describes him as “puppet master and master builder.” Cameron Macaulay provided the music, and Eoghan Quinn – a MacCracken fellow at NYU – is the writer of the play, which oozes ingenuity, comedy, and an admirable string of Jane Austen jokes. According to Cameron Macaulay, the group aren’t just fellow cast members. “We all met in Trinity [College, in Dublin]…we all did different degrees, but the drama society within Trinity, called Players, is where we all kind of honed the craft, I suppose.” Infinitely talented are these four, as they prove over and over in the guise of many different characters, in the course of 75 minutes of a play so wonderfully free and funny that, as a friend of mine remarked, “it might as well have been produced by Terry Gilliam.”
Bears in Space got its start in Dublin as what Macaulay called “quite a student-y, quite hungover manifestation…it was one of those instances where the title came first, because that was what was funniest to Eoghan.” From there, it went on to Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and then London. “There was a lot more work that went into it in terms of the writing, in terms of the music, and in terms of the staging…It just became a little tighter and a little bit clearer. And then this year we’re here, so we’ve gotten good mileage out of it, anyway.” Any play as wonderfully outlandish and imaginative as Bears in Space that also manages some exquisitely relevant references to Jane Austen’s Emma cements itself as comedic gold in this writer’s opinion.
Another of 1st Irish Festival’s crown jewels this year is born out of collaboration. This fall marks the first time that Origin Theatre Company has partnered with the New York Shakespeare Exchange, and it looks like it won’t be the last. The New York Shakespeare Exchange, founded in 2010, is devoted to reinventing Shakespeare – in the most inventive ways possible. As Artistic Director Ross Williams explained (from atop a wooden table in quintessentially Irish bar in Hell’s Kitchen), the purpose of NYSX is to pick up the old text, dust it off, and make it contemporary and “unstuffy.” And ShakesBEER, “NYC’s Original Shakespearean Pub Crawl,” is perhaps their most addictive innovation.
There really is no way to put into words the experience of an afternoon of ShakesBEER. Suffice it to say that you get more than your money’s worth in the best of Shakespeare, drinks, and that warm feeling of camaraderie that comes with sharing a passion. There’s nothing quite like seeing beloved characters suddenly incarnated amongst you, part of the crowd and yet still up to their timeless antics. You may be in the middle of a conversation with an actor, pint in hand, when they suddenly check their watch, apologize, and jump up on a barstool. In an instant they transform: maybe into Juliet, maybe Sir John Falstaff – characters that you can reach out and touch, both literally and figuratively. Dressed in flashy modern garb and making a scene as only a Shakespearean character can do, the actors prove that Shakespeare is right at home anywhere from the Globe Theatre to Hell’s Kitchen. Slanders and insults are tossed across the room, temper tantrums are thrown in style, and when the short excerpts are over, the crowd salutes the actors with a resounding “Huzzah!” that grows louder at each successive bar. To celebrate their connection with 1st Irish, this edition of ShakesBEER added an excerpt from The Cripple of Inishmaan by English/Irish playwright Martin McDonagh which proved just as popular with the crowd as any of the Bard’s work. In fact, Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival and the New York Shakespeare Exchange complement each other so well (a beautiful marriage of Shakespeare, Irish poets, and drinking pints of beer on a Saturday afternoon) that Mr. Williams announced the intention to make a tradition of it.
In various theaters in NYC www.1stirish.org