Direct from the Dublin Fringe Festival, Ireland sends us a double bill of unique and original works Swing and Beowulf: The Blockbuster at the Irish Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen. Though gentrified with different demographics today, the neighborhood has its Irish-American history. Founded in 1972, this Irish arts and cultural center loyally keeps its roots in the Kitchen.
The opening work is Swing, a one-act play with two actors playing multiple roles. From the first line when May (Janet Moran) followed by Joe (Steve Blount) enter from the audience and ask us if they are in the right place called “Swing”, they break the fourth wall. We know instantly that we are in for some fun, as we play people taking dance lessons with them. Ms. Moran and Mr. Blount are also two of the four co-writers of Swing.
And dance they do. For the entire performance, May and Joe and the other characters practice swing, lindy hop, Charleston, and the twist while conversing with dance partners, all in need of companionship and human connection. Though May and Joe are the principal story, Ms. Moran and Mr. Blount intermittently dance away from those characters with “change partners” and fluidly become other regulars at Swing. They also portray dance teachers shouting instructions at us. I sometimes got lost with which character they were playing when they changed partners, but it didn’t matter. You get glimpses of who these people are.
May and Joe share their lives, look forward to seeing each other, get close, and form a bond through dance. May is a graphic designer with a boyfriend who is away for three months, yet she is open and comfortable with Joe in a way we suspect she isn’t with her boyfriend. Joe is fifty years old and back in college studying horticulture since the family printing business went under in the digital age. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor, however, and jokes that he is a babe magnet as well as the King of Swing.
In Ireland, not mentioning the Irish Diaspora would be inauthentic. Joe has one son in Australia and another son in Chicago. May’s brother lives in Sydney and will never come home, she says. Both Joe and May took their “J1” (visa) American adventure when they were young. Joe rode a motorcycle across the states, ended up a Redwood forest ranger, but returned home for his ailing father. May and her friends spent one summer getting drunk on Virginia Beach.
One might conclude that this dance studio is a microcosm of contemporary Ireland. There are references to Ireland’s modern economy. One foreign dance student, Noelia, works at Google in Dublin, now European headquarters to many multinationals. She tells Joe that a lot of her friends have gone home to their countries, alluding to the boom that went bust.
However, the spine of the play is the warming and coming together of May and Joe. Ms. Moran and Mr. Blount accomplish remarkable stagecraft, as they dance and talk through weeks of lessons and socials that follow every class. Director Peter Daly’s clever staging leads the two actors through their numerous character transitions.
The second work on the bill Beowulf: The Blockbuster is related to the first only through originality. It is a one-man tour de force, written and performed by Bryan Burroughs. Mr. Burroughs is slender with a shaved head and agile like a pantomime artist. He nimbly moves as he monologizes. The piece is a dying father’s sensitive way of preparing his nine year old son for his second major blow in life. The boy already lost his mother when he was a baby.
Mr. Burroughs speaks in the voices of the father “Da”, the boy, and briefly the grandmother who is caring for the boy while Da is in the hospital. She will be the boy’s guardian after his father’s death, piling on his sadness because he considers her no fun. Da showed his son what he could in his short time with him. He taught him to defend himself like Mohammed Ali and Bruce Lee from the school bullies who taunt him.
The boy without peer friends lives in a world drawn from his love of blockbusters. Da’s rasping sounds like Darth Vader. Da comes home from the hospital for his last story. The boy wants him to act out the Incredible Hulk or E.T. But Da lays out the epic poem of Beowulf and his foes, an allegory for his losing battle for life. Beowulf talks like Sean Connery. The monster Grendel is an analogy of Da’s illness. Grendel’s mother is more aggressive like the undefeatable killer disease eating away at him. “When the dragon spews fire on Beowulf, the noxious fumes went to work on his insides and his great strength failed him,” Da tells his son. “Did he know he was going to die?” the boy asks. Da replies, “He did son.” This piece is heartbreaking. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Swing By Steve Blount, Peter Daly, Gavin Kostick, and Janet Moran; directed by Peter Daly
Lighting by Mark Galione; sound by Ivan Birthistle; produced by Marketa Dowling; literary manager, Gavin Kostick; production assistant, Andrea Cleary. Presented in association with Fishamble: The New Play Company, Jim Culleton, Artistic Director.
WITH: Steve Blount (Joe, George, Sean, Justin, Uncomprehending Guy, Robert, Teacher) and Janet Moran (May, Sally, Regina, Imelda, Noelia, Girl, Teacher).
Beowulf: The Blockbuster – By Bryan Burroughs; developed and directed by David Horan
Set by Maree Kearns; lighting by Kevin Smith; sound by Philip Stewart; produced by Pat Moylan; assistant producer, Vincent Brightling. Presented in association with Pat Moylan Productions.
WITH: Bryan Burroughs.
Dublin Fringe Double Bill production manager and technical director, Mac Smith; stage manager, Grace Schultz; assistant stage manager, Lindsay Kipnes; digital advertising, Bill Updegraff/Grapeseed Media.
At Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. Tickets online at irishartscenter.org or by calling 866-811-4111. Through May 18. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with intermission. Through May 18th.