BWW Reviews: AIRE Evokes a Colorful Celtic Christmas
The American Irish Repertory Ensemble is bringing a colorful, lighthearted celebration of Christmas to the Studio Theatre at Portland Stage. The company presented staged versions of beloved Irish folktales, Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales and Susan and Tony Reilly's A Wren's Tale, told in song, verse, and in the Celtic dance of the StIllson School of Irish Dance troupe. The veteran actors and cast of charming children brought a warmth and naturalness to the "feel-good" evening.
Directed by Tony Reilly, both stories are cleverly staged, using Anthony Martin's imaginative sets and props to aid the flow of the narrative. The Wren's Story becomes a vehicle to showcase characters who juggle, play bagpipes, sing Celtic songs, and execute traditional dances, but Reilly integrates these seamlessly into the flow of the play. The adults don a variety of personae, while the trio of children remains the anchor of both stories.
Martin's designs, atmospherically painted by Stacey Koloski, evoke a child's vision of a winter wonderland: cutout two-dimensional cottages with wispy smoke curling from chimneys, pillows of snow dotting the stage and twinkling lights of fireplaces and Christmas decorations. The chorus of cat puppets used in the Dylan Thomas story is whimsical and enchanting. Michaela Denoncourt's lighting creates the glow associated with the season, while Cate Egan and Carlene Stillson provide festive, costumes with a fairytale feel. Betsy Dunphy creates the fluid musical staging/choreography for A Child's Christmas, while Carlene Stillson's choreography in A Wren's Tale is lively and lyrical by turns. The uncredited sound design is excellent, both in the use of sound effects and the blending of recorded music with onstage musicians.
Tony Reilly brings his commanding presence and mellifluous speaking and singing voice to the roles of the Old Man and Musician. It is great fun to watch him transform himself vocally and physically as needed for each cameo. Susan Reilly makes an eloquent, sympathetic Granny. Matiss Duhon almost steals the second act as the juggler with a variety of eye-catching tricks, while Thomas Ian Campbell plays pipes, lute, flute as well as a few cameo roles. Lisa Boucher Hartman brings a maternal warmth to her various young mother parts. The trio of children on the night I saw the production - Jacob Orenstein, Helen Strout, and Aliza Erickson - overcame a few awkward moments to win over the audience with their disarming appeal, and the four uncredited Stillson dancers proved remarkably agile and graceful.
By the end of the evening the cast had the audience joining the actors in carols and the entire theatre was bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia and good cheer. An entirely pleasant and heartwarming way to ring in the season!
Photos Courtesy AIRE; Craig Robinson, photographer
A Celtic Christmas is running from December 11-21, 2014, at the Studio Theatre, Portland Stage, 25A Forrest Ave., Portland, ME 207 799-5327. www.airetheater.com. They will return in Spring 2015 with Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie.