Comments by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

Let’s talk about place. As real estate agents say, its all about location, location, location. Where something happens is as important as when or how. Often events are very site specific, in other words they literally couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Location influences how the people who live there think and behave. This is especially true of locations that are geographically isolated, like islands.

Ireland is the westernmost frontier of Western Europe. Its isolation as an island at the edge of what for many millennia the known world allowed it to be relatively safe. The only reason to go to Ireland was to go to Ireland. It wasn’t “on the way” to anywhere else. While the Vikings coveted it for its arable land and comparatively mild climate, no one else had much use for it.

Ethnically, I am very Irish. I don’t often admit that because all things Celtic (pronounced with a hard C, thank you very much) are way too trendy and I don’t like to be trendy. Also, my father, from whence my Irish blood comes, emigrated to America, became an American citizen and renounced “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” I was born in the United States, both of my parents were citizens at the time of my birth, and I was never encouraged to consider any other heritage. Frankly, if you asked me to identify myself, I would proudly tell you that I am a native New Yorker, born and raised on the island of Manhattan.

But I am Irish. And last month I finally had occasion to read How the Irish Saved Civilization which made me realize that I ought to take more pride and interest in my Irishness. That was when I e-mailed Linda McInerney, the Artistic Director of Old Deerfield Productions, and asked if she would be interested in having me see and review The Last High Queen of Ireland. Lord knows, I don’t lack for opportunities to go to the theatre in the month of July!

I had interviewed McInerney, who is also the co-creator and director of this production, back in May for an article I wrote for The Women’s Times, and had been intrigued by her enthusiasm and what she told me about this musical., which has a score by Rosemary Caine, a native Irishwoman, and a book by Talaya Delaney. I liked the idea of a company run by women who were dedicated to creating new work that celebrated the often lost contributions women have made to civilization. And after I read about the (possibly mythical) Queen Maeve* in “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” I wanted to meet Gormlaith, the Last High Queen of Ireland.

There really was a Gormlaith (played here by Stephanie Carlson). She was the daughter of the King of Leinster and she lived from about 955-1020 CE. She was married three times – to a Viking named Olaf (Sean McMahon), an Irish chieftain named Malachy (Ruaidri Johnson), and then to Brian Boru (Thom Griffin) who managed to unite most of the Irish clans under his rule as the High King. She bore two sons – Sitric (Dylan Flye) to Olaf and Donnacah (Jonathan Naughton) to Brian.

These were Christian marriages, but divorce was possible, and all three of her husbands divorced Gormlaith, which tells you something about her temperament. To get revenge on Brian, Gormlaith plotted with her brother Maelmora (Josh Around) and son Sitric, now married to Brian’s daughter by a previous marriage, Emer (Brooke Steinhauser), to divide Ireland once again, with the help of Sigurd of Orkney (Josh Wachtel) and Brodir of Man (Devon Fitzgerald). This they succeeded in doing at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday, April 23, in 1014, after which Brodir assassinates Brian at Gormlaith’s behest.

Pretty standard sturm und drang amongst the aristocracy, except that these folks do it the Irish way, with lots of singing. Delaney, Caine, and McInerney have added flashbacks to the life of the Young Gormlaith (Molly Kely Gorham), and surrounded the action with a chorus of eight women, led by Maureen McElligott as “a crone from the old days,” in other words a representation of pre-Christian Irish culture. (Christianity was introduced to Ireland by St. Patrick in the second half of the 5th century CE, half a millennium before Gormlaith’s time.)

The Reid Theatre at Deerfield Academy is a three-quarters round house (audience on risers on three sides of the playing space on the floor) and set and prop designer Amy B. Davis has rounded the square by placing a circle of what appears to be garden mulch (the cast walks barefoot on it with no apparent pain and it has a nice, earthy look to it) in the center of the playing space and surrounding it with a ring of small “stones” on which actors can sit or stand. The fourth side of the theatre has a long hanging curtain from floor to ceiling in the center, flanked by three “stone” steps. Shadow puppets, manipulated by Ella Reily Stocker and Tom Bellavance-Grace, and video and slides are projected on to the curtain to good effect. The images are designed by Calvin Anderson, who also designed the lighting, which is occasionally too gloomy to see the actors’ faces clearly.

So, let’s talk about place again. As soon as the curtain went up on the show, I realized I wasn’t in Berkshire County anymore. Art is specific to location too, and what is summer theatre in the Berkshires is a whole different animal from what it is in the Pioneer Valley. There there aren’t the big, powerful “professional” companies that dominate and literally drive the local companies into a counter-intuitive warm-weather hibernation from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They have much more of a cohesive, locally-based, year-round arts scene, of which Old Deerfield Productions has been a part for eighteen years.

How did that difference manifest itself? In the performances. Caine’s music, Delaney’s book, McInerney’s direction, and the work of the whole design team was as professional as anything I might see in the Berkshires, but most of the cast were obviously amateur – good amateurs, but amateurs nonetheless. With the exception of the mature and professional Carlson and Griffin, and the talented young Brooke Steinhauser, the voices were thin. Of course, they were also not miked. I am not a fan of miking professional singers, but I think I am in favor of helping out voices that cannot (yet) fill the theatre.

Brooke Steinhauser (I am using both her names because her mother, Ann Steinhauser, also appears in the production), has also designed the costumes, and her sketches and swatches along with an interesting statement from her about her design concept is posted in the theatre lobby. This is her first solo costuming gig after years of watching and helping her mother with the task, and she decided to costume these characters as “fantasy fiction” figures, rather than aiming for historical accuracy. When I read this in the lobby before the show, I was distressed. I had come hoping to avoid the whole faux Celtic fantasy scene, but once I saw the costumes on the actors, on the set, under the lights, in motion, everything worked. The audience, including me, had not entered with a set idea of what Irish men and women or Vikings or Bog Women of the 10th & 11th centuries wore, and both Delaney’s book and McInerney’s staging place us not in reality but in the theatre.

Caine’s music is delightful and was nicely performed by a six-person band, including Caine on harp, composed primarily of acoustic stringed instruments. Again, there is a lot of faux Celtic music out there, but this didn’t feel like Caine was trying to sound like anyone or anything other than her own unique self, and she is an Irish woman therefore the music is Irish.

The house was filled and the energy was good at the matinee performance I attended. People in the Pioneer Valley obviously expect good things from Old Deerfield Productions, and The Last High Queen of Ireland did not disappoint. I was very happy that I took that journey, both literally and theatrically, to a different place and learned a little bit more about the women (and men) who are my ancestors.

Old Deerfield Productions presents "The Last High Queen of Ireland" July 9-12 & 16-19, at 8 p.m. on Thursdays–Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays in the Reid Theatre, Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with no intermission and is suitable for children eight and up. Tickets are $25 & $20 available at the door or online or call (413) 559-7678.

* A note on Celtic/Gaelic names: Because spelling was not standardized at the time when the histories of Maeve, Gormlaith, Brian Boru, etc. were written down, there is no way to know how the names of people and places were really spelled or pronounced. For the purposes of making this review as legible as possible, I am using the most recognizable current versions or the spellings Old Deerfield Productions used in their program. copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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