Review: It's Smooth Sailing for JIMMY TITANIC at New Rep

By: Jun. 25, 2013
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Jimmy Titanic

Written by Bernard McMullan, Directed by Carmel O'Reilly; Lighting Design, Tyler Lambert-Perkins; Production Stage Manager, Candice Mongellow

CAST: Colin Hamell as Jimmy Boylan and others

A Tir Na Theatre production, performances through June 30 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org

A little over a year ago, the public was swamped with remembrances of and tributes to the RMS Titanic, the greatest ship known to man, which tragically sank after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage on April 15, 1912. Granted, in Boston the hoopla had to jockey for attention with the 100th anniversary celebrations for our beloved Fenway Park, but it was hard not to notice the renewed surge of interest in the ill-fated ocean liner some fifteen years after James Cameron's epic Academy Award-winning film had put the ship's name on everyone's lips. The Boston premiere of Tir Na Theatre's production of Jimmy Titanic at New Repertory Theatre's Black Box dredges up the tragedy once again, but from a decidedly different point of view.

Playwright Bernard McMullan sets his story in heaven (which strangely resembles an undecorated stage) one hundred years after the sinking and assigns the task of telling us what really happened to a good Belfast boy, the late Jimmy Boylan, played in a tour de force performance by Colin Hamell. The fictional Boylan and his good friend Tommy Mackey were shipyard workers who signed on for the first journey of the craft they helped to build. Jimmy's narration moves back and forth between the hereafter and the chaotic scene a century ago, introducing a mélange of characters whom Hamell brings to life without benefit of scenery or costume changes.

McMullan's conceit places the focus on the lost dreams of immigrants, those whose accommodations in steerage were a world away from the passengers on the first class deck; the men who built and served as crew on the ship; and the impact of the disaster on the proud shipbuilding tradition in Belfast. Characters include the city's Mayor who frantically attempts to spin the story to blame the iceberg and not the workmanship in order to control the damage to the local economy, as well as a New York Times editor and a couple of his staff who are trying to get the story fast first and accurate second. Through a variety of accents, tones of voice, mannerisms, and postures, Hamell clearly differentiates the characters, be they male, female, alive, dead, or other-worldly. You've never seen God portrayed in the way that Hamell imagines Him; it is a revelation.

The playwright, the actor, and Director Carmel O'Reilly are all natives of Ireland which heightens their capacity to get this right. Although a couple of the upper crust passengers are included in the narrative, the script mostly plays to the strengths of Hamell as an affable Irish bloke who gives an indelible authenticity to Boylan, Mackey, and their fellow crewmates. However, he is no less effective as fey archangel Gabriel who shakes down new arrivals at the pearly gates or the cigarette-smoking Supreme Being who doles out tough love to victims of man-made events. Lighting Designer Tyler Lambert-Perkins effectively suggests different locations on the ship - using an amber light to represent the furnace when the workers are shoveling coal, for example - and alters the angles and brightness of strategically located spotlights to shift from heaven to the corridors of the sinking Titanic.

As a one-man show, Jimmy Titanic sinks or swims on the talents of the solo performer. Hamell has both comedic and dramatic acting chops, and his Irish heritage is a significant bonus. However, his greatest asset for this role is his storytelling ability and the connection he makes with the audience. We all know about the sinking of the Titanic and the tragic deaths of so many onboard, but Hamell's gift is sharing their lives with us.

Photo credit: Michael and Suz Karchmer (Colin Hamell)



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