July 24, 2010

"The Irish..and How They Got That Way" is a Fitting Epitaph for the Late Frank McCourt

It’s hard to think of anything tackier than showing up at a memorial service and dissing the deceased.  The Irish Repertory Theatre has just revived The Irish…and How They Got That Way, the 1997 revue about Irish history written by the memorist Frank McCourt who died last summer. It’s clearly a labor of love for the company, which had a long association with the author, and so let me say right off the bat that there will be no badmouthing here about its good intentions—or the object of its affection.

McCourt, of course, is best known for writing “Angela’s Ashes,” the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about his hardscrabble childhood in Ireland.  But his first professional writing success was an autobiographical two-man play called A Couple of Blaguards that he and his actor brother Malachy wrote two decades before the book came out and performed around the country for years.

Spinning yarns about the Irish is something of a McCourt family business. Malachy and another brother Alphie have written memoirs of their own. A nephew made a documentary about the clan. All the tales they tell are simultaneously angry and defensive about the treatment of the Irish over the years and proud and unabashedly sentimental about the accomplishments of their kinsmen.

The Irish…and How They Got That Way falls right in that McCourt tradition. A six-member cast that includes a pianist and string player whips through some three dozen classic Irish songs from “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra” to “Danny Boy” with stops along the way for “No Irish Need Apply,” “The Ghost of Molly McGuire” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  

In between the songs, the actors tell stories about the cruelty of the English, the miseries of the 19th century potato famine, the bias Americans first showed against Irish immigrants and the role the Irish later played in the American labor movement, in politics and in the movies—or, as in Ronald Reagan’s case, all three. 

Charlotte Moore, the co-founder of the Irish Rep, doesn’t seem to have done much updating of her original, straightforward (in all senses of the word) direction (a review from the time complained that the audience sitting on one side of the stage was ignored and it still is). 

Moore and designer Jan Hartley have added some video projections but they prove to be only partly successful (at one point a painting of Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence flashes on screen while the cast talks about the heyday of Tammany Hall). 

Still the cast members are sincere and hardworking, particularly Gary Troy, who is equally adept at singing, dancing, crafting distinctive characters out of the smallest bits of dialog and even playing the spoons. And it would be hard to find a more dulcet Irish tenor than Ciarán Sheehan, reprising his role from the original production.  All in all, I think Frank McCourt—and his legions of fans—would find this revival a fitting tribute to his memory. 

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