BWW Review: Rian Keating Puts His Audience IN THIS TRAVELING HEART at Don't Tell Mama
Rian Keating is a storyteller.
There is a storytelling community in New York City, one centered around places like The Moth, places like The Whitaker Center or Kollab New York where people can find Story Slams, or where they can be booked to tell their story. There is no reason why Rian Keating couldn't go into the storytelling community, so skilled is he at the art form, but Ryan has chosen to show his work in the cabaret community because it is his home, and because there is always an element of music in his shows, he being an aficionado of the American Musical Theater. Make no mistake about it - Rian Keating is not doing a musical cabaret show, he is doing a spoken word cabaret with music.
There is a need for more spoken word cabaret. The art of cabaret is about more than music, and audiences need more storytelling, more poetry, more stand-up comedy, more monology in their cabaret nightclubs.
Rian Keating's storytelling is very much welcome in the cabaret theaters of New York City.
Mr. Keating's new show "In This Traveling Heart" is a nostalgic and frank look back at those all-important years between the ages of ten and eighteen, those years during which we learn who we are, decide who we want to be, and make a plan for that which will become our life. It is a show well designed to poignantly and humorously speak directly to anyone over the age of 15, and the audience at his sold-out November 16th premiere was happy to go along for the ride (the response was sometimes so big that Mr. Keating was occasionally thrown for a loop, breaking out in smiles and commenting "We're a rowdy crowd today!"). The incredibly vocal response from the audience was warranted and to be expected: not only is the story Mr. Keating is telling an interesting one, the manner in which he tells it is engaging and easy to commit to, something that takes a few components, all of which have, clearly, been investigated and executed with thoughtful consideration.
The writing. Mr. Keating's script is superb. He tells the story in terms that neither condescend to his audience nor reach a point so lofty that people are left wondering their meaning. Using meticulously chosen words, making up sentences that flow like a gentle country stream, Keating illustrates memories in ways reminiscent of Kathryn Forbes or Carson McCullers, with vivid grammar and direct themes to which one can relate, until a surprise in the trajectory of the story becomes an aspect of life requiring some thought and explanation. There is much in the story of Keating's young life for which a person can feel empathetic pangs, yet there exist incidents and experiences which leave the audience feeling alienated - exactly the point, for a young, deaf boy living in a foreign country with an absent father and a torturous school life is bound to feel adrift. Keating masters the journey into unhappiness and back out again in ways substantive and eloquent.
The acting. Rian Keating, as a storyteller, knows where lie the highs and lows of the verbiage. With reverential elegance, he navigates the monologue he has created, maximizing the effect of the audible journey upon which his audience is being taken. There are perfectly timed pauses for effect dramatic and comedic, there are characters created by dialogue and accent work (no Lucky Charms leprechauns appear when Rian speaks in an Irish brogue), and there are musically orchestrated tones of voice that touch the second of the five senses, making more tangible for the audience the experience that was Rian's life in many different cities and towns. During the parts of his story that were more challenging, Keating remains mostly still, at the microphone, sharing his story; once happy themes enter his tale, it is noticeable how animated he appears, indeed, he becomes giddy to the point of giggling. It is an extremely effective choice.
The directing. Tanya Moberly guides Mr. Keating in subtle and gentle ways, making sure that he looks us in the eye while he is talking to us. Nothing puts a divide between a storyteller and their listeners quite like an avoided gaze, a fact of which Moberly and Keating are quite aware, so they see to it that no member of the audience feels that divide. Mr. Keating brings a familial air to his hour with us by making sure we understand that he sees us, that he is sharing with us his life, and what greater compliment is there than that? Moberly keeps the pace moving and she makes sure that she has Keating's back at all times. The second driver on the train is musical director Woody Regan, who is aware of Keating's musical needs and stays with him, watching him like a hawk, and giving him all the support he needs.
And Rian Keating needs musical support.
You see, Rian Keating is deaf. This comes up several times during the show, so this is not a spoiler. Rian Keating suffered a significant hearing loss during his youth and has learned to live with it, work with it, and rise to the occasion. A devotee of musical theater, Keating is lucky in that his hearing loss is not profound deafness, that he has enough residual hearing to enjoy the record albums, cast recordings, soundtracks that have been one of the passions of his life. And Rian Keating loves to sing, and when he does, he throws himself into it with all the passion he feels for the music, and the audience sees and feels that passion from him. Given his hearing loss, Rian has vocal limitations, and audiences need to be prepared. He has some pitch problems. This is not said in any mean-spirited manner, it is said as a matter of fact. When a person cannot hear, they cannot place the pitch, it is a fact of life. There are times when Rian is right on the pitch, and times when he is not; and it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because we have all been told, all our lives, to make a joyful noise. We have not been told to make a beautiful noise, we have been told to make a joyful noise. And when Rian Keating sings it is, indeed, most joyful - and that is beautiful. This writer... I, Stephen Mosher... I would rather watch one Rian Keating show in which I am told a story with a complete arc, by a performer who looks me in the eye, listening to perfect prose and music that is perfect in its' imperfections, than watch ten shows by artists who sing beautifully but without emotion, without acknowledging their audience, without telling a story. If Mr. Keating wants to work on the singing, it wouldn't hurt for him to spend a little time working with his vocal coach on how better to use the mic so that he can sing softer, rather than follow the instinct to sing powerfully, because pushing too hard will always send a limited voice further off the pitch. If, however, Mr. Keating wishes to continue doing things the way he already is, he'll be just fine, as evidenced by the love the audience had for him and for his storytelling craft.
Yes, Rian Keating is definitely a storyteller and he is definitely worth checking out because, more than anything, Rian Keating is an authentic, genuine, sincere, caring human being with a loving heart, a delightful personality, and a helluva great story to tell.
All performances of In This Traveling Heart benefit the Lower East Side Preparatory High School's Golden Door Scholarship Fund to help aid an immigrant high school graduate to attain the dream of a college education.
Photos by Stephen Mosher