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BWW REVIEWS: Josh Sticklin Shines in the Keegan Theatre's World Premiere of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S RIOT

The Keegan Theatre knocks one out of the park with its production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S RIOT, appearing in repertory with THINGS YOU SHOULDN'T SAY PAST MIDNIGHT. More accurately, Keegan hits a hole-in-one in its world premiere of Belfast playwright Rosemary Jenkinson's one act, one actor play about a young golf fan in Cluan, a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast. Cluan is blocked from a nearby Catholic neighborhood with "peace lines" constructed of walls topped by prison-like fences, whose purpose is to keep the neighbors from attacking each other, although projectiles often find their way over the walls.

What is it like to grow up in such an atmosphere? For the older folks, it's undoubtedly better than the bloody civil war that claimed so many lives. But for the young, including Ross, the play's late teens or early twenties protagonist, brilliantly and energetically played by Josh Sticklin, the uneasy peace has stifled their opportunities.

Anyone who has ever been a young man or known one - especially one with attention deficit disorder, who can't sit still for more than a few seconds - will recognize Ross. Ross dreams of becoming a golfer but can't even afford a set of clubs, let alone lessons. Ross was forced to drop out of school because of fallout from the political situation. He spends his life fantasizing about becoming another Rory McIlroy, a real-life native of Northern Ireland who has succeeded on the pro tour and whose poster adorns the wall above Ross's bed. Ross's reality, however, consists of attempting to meet -- and bed -- girls, drinking and drugging, and participating in the frequent summer riots that plague the Cluan neighborhood.

Director Abigail Isaac enhances Ross's vivid descriptions through technology - recordings of a crowd yelling and burning property, a police vehicle's lights blinking red and blue behind the stage, the plunks of a golf ball behind the audience, and the insistent buzzes emanating from the curious devices that Ross's friend's mother sells for a living. Still, the focus is almost exclusively on the charismatic Mr. Sticklin, whose adopted Irish accent never wavers, and who leaps about on an almost bare stage, telling his story in a mesmerizing fashion that all but convinced me I was seeing and hearing several people. His depiction of an intimate encounter with an older woman is hilarious, as is Ross's jumping out of bed in the morning and sniffing the dirty laundry strewn on the floor, as he looks for something clean enough to wear for a second day.

Ross is so likable, familiar, and normal that we root for him to mature enough to give up booze and dope, find a job, and pursue his golfing dream. Ross's short hair and clothing may lull North American audiences into thinking that he can't really be part of the despair around him - not when he dresses like any young office worker on Casual Friday. The police have taken to entering houses and smelling the residents' clothes to determine whom to arrest, and Ross informs the audience that he'll have to ditch yet another tear-gas permeated shirt, which is why it costs a "boatload" to take part in a riot. One of the lessons of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S RIOT seems to be that young folks trapped in poverty, despair, and violence are not so different from our own kids.

The play contains numerous funny moments, many of them attributable to Ross's wisecracks. According to Ross, a particular woman is so heavy, she makes a sofa seem like an armchair. He also remarks that the way to tell when it's summer in Northern Ireland is that the rain gets warmer. Yet despite the numerous laughs, this play is no comedy. Ross's youthful exuberance contrasts with the hopelessness that the Cluan residents feel about their lives, where the peace walls serve as a metaphor for the figurative prisons in which they find themselves. Until the last moments, the audience is left wondering whether Ross will succeed or will go the way of so many other young men in Belfast still caught up in the sectarian unrest despite the peace treaty - to prison or worse.

Between the violence, the drugging and drinking, Ross's frequent use of the f-word, and his graphic depictions of sex, if A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S RIOT were a movie, it would almost definitely receive an R rating. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile play to see for young middle-class males living in a place that is at peace. There but for the grace of God go my sons.

The Keegan is having a busy spring, with its two plays in repertory. It is also in the midst of a capital campaign to raise funds to renovate its Dupont Circle area facility, which it purchased in June 2013, after years of renting space; like so many nonprofit professional theaters, it relies heavily on private donations to stay afloat. The building is not currently ADA compliant, and the plan is to construct a new entry in the neighboring alley with elevators to access every level, build modern restrooms to replace the cramped facilities that evoke the atmosphere of the 1920's, and outfit the theater with plush seats with additional legroom, while keeping the stadium configuration so beloved to short people like me. The plans also call for new backstage facilities for the cast and crew, addition of a classroom, and upgrades to the electrical system; Jon Townson, a company member active in the fundraising effort, said that the wiring is so old that it limits the number of electrical instruments that can safely be plugged in at once. He also mentioned that the upgrades will make it easier to regulate the sound to avoid disrupting the neighbors in what is largely a residential area.

Having experienced the high quality of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S RIOT, I can't help rooting for the success of the Keegan's fundraising efforts.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S RIOT runs through June 5th, primarily on weekends. The schedule (which alternates with THINGS YOU SHOULDN'T SAY PAST MIDNIGHT) is available at . The Keegan Theatre is located at 1742 Church Street, NW, Washington, DC, between 17th and 18th Streets. The web site is .

Backstage Credits

Director .................... Abigail Isaac

Scenic Design .................... Michael Innocenti/Colin Smith

Lighting Design .................... Allan Weeks

Costume Design .................... Kelly Peacock

Sound Design .................... Dan Deiter

Properties Designer and Set Dressing .................... Carol Hood Baker

Hair and Makeup Design .................... Craig Miller

Stage Manager .................... Juliana Parks

Photo Credit: C.Stanley Photography

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