Review: A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Hill Arts Center

Company Seeks New Home as Hill Arts Center Undergoes Sweeping Expansion

By: Mar. 02, 2024
Review: A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Hill Arts Center
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Portland’s Good Theater poetic, poignant revival of the Ahrens/Flaherty musical, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, exquisitely directed by Brian P. Allen, marks several memorable milestones for this company which has been a jewel in Portland’s theatrical scene for twenty-one seasons. Not only does the production mark the 100th  show that Allen has directed at the Good, which he co-founded with Steve Underwood in 2002, but sadly, it is also the last one they will mount in the Hill Arts Center (formerly the St. Lawrence Arts Center) on Munjoy Hill.

The Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical is an apt choice. Not only is it a valentine to the theatre but it is an eloquent testament to the power of art to transform ordinary lives and serve as a path to authenticity and self-affirmation.  In a tightly woven book by Terrence McNally, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE tells the story of Alfie Byrne, a Dublin bus conductor by day and the director of an amateur theatrical troupe by night. As Byrne’s artistic hero, Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “It is only in the theatre that I am alive,” and this mantra rings true for Byrne, as well. On stage he is able to let his imagination soar, his love for poetry flourish, and his unspoken dreams take shape. McNally’s script is laced with gentle humor, colorful appreciation for the Irish cultural setting, and a roster of endearing characters.  Flaherty’s score channels Celtic melodies and rhythms, while creating solo numbers, recitatives, and long concerted ensemble passages of immense beauty – these coupled with Ahrens’ ingenious, adroit lyrics to create a harmonious interplay of word and song.

Allen’s direction in this, his second go at the work, is fluid and disarmingly minimalist. The eighteen-person ensemble moves readily from playing roles to playing instruments, while some audience members are seated on stage becoming silent partners in the action.  Allen draws sensitive performances from the cast and paces the revelations of the script with subtle tension and release. Ultimately, his vision for the work is one filled with tenderness and quiet joy.

Victoria Stubbs serves as the stalwart Music Director, providing solid grounding for the actor/musicians.  The décor by Steve Underwood (Heather Irish, Props) consists of an attractive backdrop of stained glass windows and a church pew in front of which a collection of wooden folding chairs are rearranged with musical precision to create the different locales of the play.  Iain Odlin suggests night and day in the streets and homes of Dublin, while Michelle Handley provides simple, but evocative costumes with Gaelic flavor. Completing the elegant production team are Steve Underwood with sound design, Craig Robinson as Technical Director, and Michael Lynch as Stage Manager.

Review: A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Hill Arts Center The actors project a strong sense of ensemble spirit, and it is delightful to see such a combination of Good regulars and new faces on stage. The entire cast succeeds admirably in delivering consistent and credible Irish dialects, and they all invest their performances with individuality and authenticity.  Several performances stand out both vocally and dramatically, among them Steven Martella as Robbie Fay, who gets to sing one of the show’s most stirring numbers, “The Streets of Dublin,” which he delivers with panache, while capturing the earthy kindness of the character.  Abbey Hutchins lends her lovely soprano to the role of Adele Rice, creating the portrait of an awkward young woman navigating difficult circumstances. Steve Underwood takes a dual turn as Father Kenny and a whimsical and wise Oscar Wilde, while Jen Means is amusing as the pious Mrs. Grace who becomes a stage diva as Herodias.

In the title role, David Bass-Clark delivers a touching performance as Alfie Byrne.  He is the perfect, unassuming Everyman, who stores within his soul depths of passion and poetry. At times heartbreakingly timid – such as the close of Act One when he whispers the famous lines from Lord Alfred Douglas’ poem about “ the love that are not speak its name” – to the introspective dialogue of “Man in the Mirror,” to his final affirmative anthem “Welcome to the World,” Bass-Clark masters the nuances of the role and wins the audience’s heart.

A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE is about the power of art to transform lives, to make them whole, to find the courage to speak truths, and to embrace others for who they are.  Like Alfie who finds acceptance in loving “who you love,” and a voice in his theatrical work, the work speaks to the essentiality of art and poetry in our lives.

The Good Theater, led with intrepid vision by Allen and Underwood,  has been an essential, integral part of Portland’s theatre scene for more than two decades, presenting new and classic works with a consistently high production values.  Small and intimate in its physical scope, the Good Theater’s impact on theatre in Maine has been large and invaluable.  This little gem of a theatre is too precious to vanish from the Portland theatrical landscape.  One ardently hopes the company will find a new home and continue to enrich our lives with their vision.

A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE runs from February 28-March 24, 2024, at the Hill Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland, ME  207-838-0835

Photos courtesy of Good Theater, Steve Underwood, photographer