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Martin: a priest who sees the funny side

POSTED ON May 16th  - POSTED IN Arts

At an elegant dinner party back in post-war Paris, the papal nuncio found himself seated across from a woman with a low-cut dress that showed a lot of cleavage.

Someone turned to Archbishop Roncalli and said: “Your Excellency, what a scandal! Aren’t you embarr­assed that everyone is looking at that woman?”

“Oh no,” he replied, “everyone’s looking at me to see if I’m looking at her.”

But Roncalli’s most quoted line dates from his time as pope: when a journalist enquired about how many people worked in the Vatican, he said: “About half.”

On another occasion, Pope John XXIII, who headed the church from 1958 until 1963, was asked about the Italian tradition of closing offices for several hours after lunch.

“Your Holiness, we understand that the Vatican is closed in the afternoon, and that people don’t work then.”

“Ah, no,” John said. “The offices are closed in the after­noon. People don’t work in the morning!”

He once paid a surprise visit to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome, and was introduced to the nun who ran it.

“Holy Father!” the flustered nun said, “I’m the superior of the Holy Spirit.”

“Well, I must say, you’re lucky,” said the pope, “I’m only the Vicar of Christ.”

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, relates these stories in “Between Heaven and Mirth,” which is a spin-off of sorts from his 2006 book “My Life with the Saints.”

Time and again, he heard the question when promoting that work: “What were they like?”

“We’re used to seeing saints as serious, morose people from statues, paintings and mosaics,” said Martin, the culture editor of America, the Jesuit weekly.

“People want permission to have a sense of humor,” said the author, who after a number of appearances on “The Colbert Report” was designated by host Stephen Colbert as its chaplain. He hopes his book – subtitled “Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” – can help in that regard. It’s intended, too, as a counter­weight to the gloomy religious people whom he labels the “frozen chosen,” those, he said, “who are Christian but seem to think every day is Good Friday.”

And what is the biggest surprise in his story? “That Jesus had a sense of humor,” he said.

Humor is very culture-bound and very time-bound; what was funny in 1930s movies, he said by way of example, often doesn’t work now. “If that’s the case, imagine how hard it for us to understand the humor of 1st Century Palestine,” he said.  “But scripture scholars say that many of Jesus’s parables would have been seen as funny – not simply clever or provocative but as laugh-out-loud funny.” Indeed, one scholar argued that some of the stories would have been seen as “hilarious.”

Martin left behind a career as a business executive in the mid-1980s to join the Society of Jesus; as part of that choice, he took a vow of poverty to follow Christ, who was poor, and to identify with the poor, as Christ had asked. This means that the $650,000 his books have earned in the past five years has gone to the order.

“It is countercultural, and the Gospel is counter-cultural at its heart,” he said of that pooling of resources.

For someone who spends just an hour a day on the books, Martin is remarkably productive. He’s working on his 11th – it’s about Jesus – and he has edited several others. He said that his religious order makes it all possible.

“I don’t have to write something that I think will be popular. I don’t have to crank out books as authors who support themselves do,” said the Jesuit whose family roots on his mother’s side are in Sicily and on his father’s in County Wexford. “I don’t have the stress of having to make the advance money. I don’t have to balance the tension between writing a good book and one that might sell.”

But Martin, who got his MBA at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, added: “I try to make them marketable and inviting and accessible for people.”

He enjoys every aspect of the business – the writing and the editing, the work on the galleys, the discussion about the cover, the media appearances and the interaction with readers. As for the paycheck, Fr. Martin said: “It’s used by the Jesuits and they use it well.”


Alliance with Staller works well for Rep


Margaret Loesser Robinson (Violet), Janie Brookshire (Ann/Ana) and Laurie Kennedy (Mrs. Whitefield) in “Man and Superman.”

Man and Superman * By George Bernard Shaw * Directed by David Staller * Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC * Through June 17

In 1905, when George Bernard Shaw wrote “Man and Superman,” he created an ongoing problem for producers attempting to stage the play. Taken by themselves, acts one, two and four, as a unit, are genuinely funny and fairly straightforward.

The third act, a dream sequence, is an extravagant meditation on the play’s theme, which might best be described as a ferocious adherence to the “Life Force.” That, however, is partly where the trouble lies.

Brilliantly written, act three is completely detachable from the rest of the play. Because of this aspect, it has almost always been omitted in production and what’s more, it has often been staged as a theatrical production by itself. Along the way, it developed its own title, “Don Juan in Hell,” which is mainly how it is known by the general public.

A few decades ago, a clever producer created what he called the First Drama Quartet, hired a succession of name actors, and sent a modestly produced version of “Don Juan in Hell” out on the theatrical road for several seasons running.

Now, the Irish Repertory Theatre, working for the first time in partnership with another producer, in this case the Gingold Theatrical Group, has come up with a new production of “Man and Superman,” with David Staller, Gingold’s founder and artistic director, directing.

The production, which will run through June 17, is rather coyly set in “The Present, 1905.” Scene I of Act 11 takes place in “Hell,” which, of course, suggests that that’s where “Don Juan in Hell” has been placed.

Gracefully playable as the material is, the situation is still rather awkward, mainly because playing the major portions of both plays requires considerable editing. The current production runs exactly three hours, with one brief intermission.

With director Staller’s obvious sense of pacing and feeling for the material, the production comes off as one of the cleanest and clearest Irish Rep shows in a long while.

The cast, for the most part, is first rate, headed as it is by the unfailing Brian Murray as an opinionated gentleman named Roebuck Ramsden. For the hour that “Don Juan in Hell” takes stage, he is Dona Ana’s father, the Commandant, back from heaven for a brief but sparkling visit.

“Don Juan in Hell” uses just four of the actors from “Man and Superman.” Dona Ana, who is Ann Whitefield; the romantic Jew, Mendoza, who is the Devil; the Commandant, who is Ann’s father; and, of course, Jack Tanner, who is Don Juan.

Other standouts in Staller’s cast include Janie Brookshire as Ann, Max Gordon Moore as Jack, Jonathan Hammond as Mendoza, Margaret Loesser Robinson as Violet, Laurie Kennedy as Mrs. Whitefield, Paul O’Brien as Malone, Zachary Spicer as his son, Hector, and Will Bradley as Jack’s loyal friend, Octavius.

Tanner, whom Ann, a.k.a. Ana, wishes to marry at any cost, becomes his own legendary ancestor, Don Juan. Tanner and Mendoza, the Devil, discuss the meaning of heaven and hell, love and marriage, not to mention good and evil.

Tanner is bored in hell, where he has mostly the same satisfactions he knew on earth. As Don Juan, he dedicates himself more than ever to the Life Force, which he feels operates through women, trapping men into marriage.

But all such unions tend ultimately toward producing a truly superior being,  a process which Shaw referred to as “creative evolution.”

The major point of the play is that Ann, knowing that her highest mission is to help create this “superman.”

In the end, Dona Ana decides to follow Don Juan to heaven.

“Don Juan in Hell,” sometimes known as the “interior play,” doesn’t fare all that well in this otherwise excellent production. James Noone’s handsome scenic design draws an anonymous curtain across the set and presents chairs for the four speakers to occupy during “Don Juan in Hell.”

It really isn’t a very satisfactory solution to the play’s enduring problem. It seems possible that they might have done at least a little bit better.


Linehan feels affinity with Charlotte Brontë


Maxine Linehan will star in the revival of the one-woman play “Brontë: a portrait of Charlotte” at Theater 511.

Charlotte Brontë’s father was an Irishman called Patrick. Although the author of “Jane Eyre” grew up in a small cottage in Yorkshire, friends said she spoke with a slightly funny brogue. And she and her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls (who was originally from County Antrim) traveled to Ireland for their honeymoon.

So, as actress Maxine Linehan pointed out, it’s strange that we haven’t yet claimed her as our own. That’s what Linehan is about to do in a solo play called “Brontë: a portrait of Charlotte.” In a production presented by the Alloy Theater Company with previews starting this week at Theater 511 off Broadway, Linehan will channel the brilliant young novelist who died a few weeks before her 39th birthday.

For two hours, audiences will be privy to Charlotte’s thoughts on life, on writing and on early Victorian society. The play, written by William Luce in 1983, is woven from hundreds of letters Charlotte exchanged with her friend Ellen Nussey, deals with themes of loss and of love, as Brontë grieves for her siblings Emily, Anne and Branwell, and wonders if she will marry. When Linehan first came across it, she read it in one sitting.

Linehan, who describes herself as “pretty close to Charlotte’s age [33]” at the time the play is set, said that she feels a weighty responsibility to portray the historical figure accurately. (She joked: “I pray to God that I’ll outlive her.”) She has spent months conducting research into Charlotte’s biography and reading the many books that have been written about her. But she also has a natural affinity with the novelist. “I grew up in Ireland and my father was very similar to Charlotte’s father Patrick, in addition to the name,” she said.

Linehan now lives with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter in New York but she was born in County Cork, the eldest in her family. She loved acting but despite early success in the Irish Operatic Repertory Company, she went on to do a law degree.

“I was encouraged to study something a little more serious, for want of a better expression,” she told the Irish Echo in a phone interview.

It was law that brought her to New York, when the London firm that she worked for moved her out here. Acting was always in her blood, though, and Linehan said that her time away from acting was really just a “10-year hiatus.”

The differences between law and acting are not as stark as they might seem. A lawyer is a negotiator and an orator, although Linehan noted that, “one of the differences between being a lawyer and actor is your paycheck.” However, acting has treated her well and she describes herself as blessed. “I have never been happier,” she said.

Despite its historical content, Brontë is a striking and modern story. When Charlotte Brontë began her career she was forced to use the pseudonym Currer Bell because it was thought inappropriate for a woman to write. The content of the highly popular “Jane Eyre” was considered scandalous. Linehan describes Charlotte as “a very strong independent woman who was way ahead of her time. She was someone who pushed the envelope.”

In this production, the set is simple, to give a sense of the Yorkshire moors but also allow Charlotte’s mind to flit easily between interior and exterior landscapes. “It’s a memory play,” explained the director, Timothy Douglas. “The play’s environment wants to replicate the fluidity of memory… And so the set cannot be literal.”

Douglas spoke highly of Linehan, saying that unlike many actors, she doesn’t take direction personally, focusing instead on the important thing – the work. “It’s just the two of us. She’s lovely both as a person and as an actor,” he said. “We laugh a lot. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take Charlotte Brontë very seriously.”

Brontë was initially written as a radio play for the legendary actress Julie Harris and after it became a stage piece, Harris toured the U.S. performing it, according to Linehan has spoken to William Luce, who is thrilled that his play is returning to the stage. Both Linehan and Douglas have high hopes for the production after this limited run.

Douglas wants audiences to come away with an authentic impression of Charlotte Brontë, and a realization that her world is not creaky or old-fashioned or much different from our own. As he put it: “She was not only extraordinary for her time – she would be extraordinary for our time too.”


“Brontë: a portrait of Charlotte” will open at Theater 511 next Tuesday, May 8,  and will run for two and half weeks. Previews begin tomorrow night.

Marcus Robinson documents a rebirth on hollowed ground

POSTED ON April 25th  - POSTED IN Arts

Marcus Robinson with an example of his work inspired by the rebuilding at the World Trade Center site.

A Belfast-born artist and filmmaker is the driving force behind a project documenting the redevelopment of the site of one of the worst atrocities of modern times.

“REBUILDING: The Great Spirit in the Sky” consists of paintings, drawings and short films inspired by and charting the construction of the new World Trade Center in New York City. Produced entirely by Belfast native Marcus Robinson, REBUILDING began on Ground Zero in 2002 and will continue to document work on the development until its completion date in 2015.

Robinson has extensive access to the development and shoots the real-time work of construction workers as well as charting the progress of the buildings’ formations using a series of time-lapse cameras dotted around the 16-acre site.

The former Campbell College, Belfast, pupil plans to produce a feature-length film from the footage he has compiled which will be interspersed with images of his paintings of the construction process, an approach he hopes will represent the intersection of the physical world with the imagined world.

Robinson, in an interview, said he always “knew in his heart” that he wanted to be an artist.

“As a child I always loved painting and drawing,” said Robinson who went on to study modern languages at Cambridge University.

“Somehow I developed an interest in photography and won several photographic contests at school. After Cambridge I went to live in Paris with the vision of becoming a successful Parisian photographer.”

Equipped with a fascination with the construction process, thanks to the profession of his late father Norman Robinson, a renowned naval draftsman who worked for Harland and Wolff, Marcus Robinson naturally gravitated towards photographing “urban landscape, architecture, gardens and construction” whilst in France.

“I have always found that the world of industrial and construction photography is infinitely inspiring and creative,” said Marcus.

“Now, in particular, the work I am doing about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center is extremely inspiring as the site has involved many different aspects from the start: the laying bare of ancient forms of bedrock as the foundations are chiseled out by giant drilling machines; the dismantling and demolition of the whole east part of the site; digging down into the earth and exposing the original piles on which the former World Trade Center had been built; the amazing face of the many men and women rebuilding.”

REBUILDING is not the first such work to be produced by Marcus, who documented the construction of the London Eye in the run-up to the millennium.

“I was introduced to the architects of the London Eye and presented them with my portfolio of Parisian architectural photography. They then asked me to photograph the making of the Eye,” he said.

“I had just recently bought a Bolex 16mm film camera that makes it possible to do animation and time-lapse filming so, as I was photographing the different elements of the London Eye being made, I was also experimenting with shooting film. This then led to Channel 4 commissioning a 30-minute piece to be shown on the channel on millennium eve followed by a slot at the London Film Festival later that year.

“My photographic book of the project, called ‘Eye’, was published in 2007.”

After the London Eye project finished, a meeting with film producers about a possible collaboration led to the idea for REBUILDING.

“Our meeting took place on

the day that the news was talking

about architect Daniel Libeskind winning the award for his design of the urban plan for the rebuilding of

the World Trade Center,” said


“Somehow, as we watched my show reel of work together, the idea bubbled up that we should make a film about the site. From that moment I knew in my heart this was something I really wanted to commit to. The first meeting I had in New York on the project was with Nina and Daniel Libeskind themselves. They seemed to be inspired by the vision for the project and helped create the key openings to meet the Port Authority of New York, (which owns the land) and Silverstein Properties (the World Trade Center developers).”

Marcus was eventually granted permission by the New York Port Authority to start filming in 2002.

“I was soon standing on the site, with my 35mm time-lapse film camera, focusing on the big machines digging the foundations of Tower One,” he remembers.

“The challenge of funding such a long-term project is considerable. Channel 4 have recently come on board and commissioned a 60-minute version for UK TV. Many of the contractors on site have helped keep the project going and I have had amazing support from Silverstein Properties and the Port Authority.”

The artwork produced by Marcus throughout the course of REBUILDING, which is available to purchase, varies in size from small drawings to massive 16x8ft paintings produced on materials from the site itself. The larger paintings are produced from a space on the 48th floor of the Silverstein 7 World Trade Center.

“I would love to bring an exhibition of REBUILDING back to Belfast,” said Marcus.

“Belfast has a very warm place in my heart. I know from my father, he died just a couple of years ago and he would have been very thrilled to know that his vision of how he thought this project would come to be would be some how honored in Belfast.”

As the project progresses, U.S. news stations and New York political players have begun to take an interest in REBUILDING.

“There so many highlights, but some of the many exciting things that have happened

include being asked to make a version of the film for Mayor Bloomberg’s press conference a couple of years ago updating the world’s press on progress on the site,” said Marcus.

“It was funny having all these big New York dignitaries in the room and my little film going out. Various cuts of the film have been used for quite a lot of these showcase events showing just how the site has evolved.”

After REBUILDING, Marcus hopes to do a series of maritime paintings.

“Over the years I’ve done a lot of paintings of the Port of Belfast and it is a theme very close to my heart as my father worked in Harland and Wolff as a ship draftsman in the 1940s,” he said.

“I feel a very close place in my heart for the whole Port of Belfast so I’ve got a series of maritime paintings that I would to do on different ports around the world such as New York and London, Rotterdam.

“I’m trying to film right up until the end of the whole process of rebuilding here and then the film might come out in 2015/16. Hopefully by then we can do something really exciting in Belfast to share it with the people in Belfast, and maybe even have the premiere there.”

For more information on the work of Marcus Robinson, visit



It’s hard not to be charmed by ‘Once’

POSTED ON April 18th  - POSTED IN Arts

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti.

“Once” * Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova ∗  Adapted by Enda Walsh * Directed by John Tiffany * Starring Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti * Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., New York

Bereft of whatever minor suggestions of pretension may have clung to it earlier on, the modest Irish musical, “Once,” has moved to Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where, with any luck at all, it may settle in for the healthy run it so richly deserves.

“Once” started its charmed life as an Irish independent film in 2006. It told the slightly thin story of two mildly depressed street musicians, a boy from Dublin and a girl from the Czech Republic who had come to Ireland to study music. The pair, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, wrote their own songs and worked much in the manner of the street performers known in England, Ireland and elsewhere as “Buskers.”

Hansard was well known in Ireland as the lead singer in a popular group called the Frames. He and Irglova, who were an item for a while, got lucky when one of their songs, “Falling  Slowly,” won a Best Original Song Academy Award.

The couple played themselves in the film, but not in the stage version, for which they have been replaced by two equally charming and gifted actors, Steve Kazee, who is unnamed, but called simply “The Guy,” and Cristin Milioti, also nameless, but rather coyly known as “The Girl.”

It would be difficult to dislike “Once,” which was transformed into a modest stage musical by director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett, both of whom were  mutually responsible for creating “Black Watch,” a famously stunning production which told the story of a Scottish army regiment disbanded in 2006 after hundreds of years of history and recent service in the Iraq war.

“Black Watch” was successful wherever it played, including two separate engagements at St.Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2007, when it stood as a powerful document on the war’s impact on the men fighting it.

For “Once,” they created a pub-like set designed by Bob Crowley that, with relatively little embellishment, took the play where ir needed to go, to a musical instrument store, for example, or to a vacuum-repair shop., and so on.

“Once” first appeared in New York at off-Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop on East 4th Street, where it had a healthy run before shutting down for over a month in order to prepare for Broadway.

Part of the show’s initial preparation for the stage involved commissioning a fresh              adaptation of John Carney’s screenplay from popular Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who has been given considerable credit for the production’s current success.

Broadway is, however, always a tough call, perhaps particularly for a show as simple, as direct and as and uncomplicated as “Once.”

Some critics have been bizarrely rough on “Once,” in one case accusing it of being, to quote the Oscar-winning song’s title, “a show that’s simply falling slowly in love with itself.” More than once the show itself has been dismissed as being “too cute.”

And a modicum of self-love is definitely a part of the mix, and it’s very probably a healthy and unavoidable portion of what the audience members experience, and very possibly of what they expect from the start or even before.

“Once” is, to put it very mildly, almost too easy to love. With any luck at all, Broadway audiences will find their way to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and find out just what makes this unpretentious little Irish musical so effective.



Dublin’s Kennedy sets sail on ‘Titanic’

POSTED ON April 11th  - POSTED IN Arts

Maria Doyle Kennedy and Toby Jones in the miniseries “Titanic,” which will be shown on ABC this weekend.

Irish actress Maria Doyle Kennedy loves how her new “Titanic” miniseries shines a spotlight on the second-class passengers of the doomed luxury liner.

“The second class is never told in Titanic [movies or TV shows.] It’s interesting in itself as a story and storyline, where they were, but also it’s interesting how that reflects on the other classes. It makes the English class system even more complex and nuanced,” the 47-year-old Clontarf-born star told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview.

Written by “Downton Abbey” and “Gosford Park” scribe Julian Fellowes, “Titanic” is a four-part television event headlined by Kennedy, Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Peter McDonald and Perdita Weeks.  It is set to air on ABC April 14-15 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous ship’s sinking.  More than 1,500 people died after the Belfast-built passenger liner struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York. Each of the first three episodes of the miniseries follows a mixture of real and imagined characters in the first-class, second-class and steerage sections of the ship in the time leading up to the crash. The finale pulls together all of the characters as they struggle to survive the historic maritime disaster.

“It is a very strong ensemble piece,” Kennedy said of the small-screen re-telling of the well-known tale. “There are several storylines in a way that Robert Altman did ‘Short Cuts’ and P.T. Anderson did ‘Magnolia.’ It’s all of these stories that overlap and weave together and that was a really interesting thing for me as an actor. It’s a proper ensemble and in some instances your story would be in the forefront and in others your story would be running through the side or the back of somebody else’s and it just seemed like a very interesting way to work for me.”

Best known for her roles on TV’s “The Tudors” and “Dexter,” as well as in the films “The General,” “The Commitments” and “The MatchMaker,” Kennedy plays fictional character Muriel Batley, an Irish woman whose husband John is a London lawyer, in the “Titanic” miniseries.

“The fact that she was fictional and not a real person just had that extra little bit of liberation about it,” explained the Trinity College Dublin graduate. “Toby [Jones, who plays John,] and I could really decide ourselves about our story and our connection and how we really felt about how the relationship had come about and what kind of state it was in. The other thing that was interesting to me is we’re second class so were kind of perfectly positioned in the middle of the boat and in the middle of the English class system, so that was an interesting thing to explore.”

The actress said she felt Muriel was a complicated, well-drawn character because she was highly intelligent and well-spoken, but, because of the time in which she lived, had no real outlet for her talents.

“I think, had she chosen to, she could have been well capable of being a lawyer herself as her husband was,” she reasoned. “But, of course, at the time, women weren’t able to do that. She wasn’t able to be part of the profession. She was mature and married and also, because of her class, she couldn’t accept a job that would have been considered menial or below her — she couldn’t take in washing or look after children. So she had nothing to do with her great intellect and they were unable to have children, so she had nowhere to pour her love. So the idea of having nothing to do with your life, I just can’t imagine how frustrated a clever woman like that would have become.”

Kennedy said her recurring role as the scheming Vera Bates on “Downton Abbey” actually didn’t help her as much as one would think in booking her passage on “Titanic.”

“That almost meant that I didn’t get the part,” she revealed. “They didn’t want to have any more cross-over. They thought that Julian himself was enough of a connection between the two things.”

Kennedy said she met with the project’s producers, who wanted to cast her, but then backed off when they realized she was already working on “Downton Abbey,” a TV drama which begins with a wealthy family’s reaction to the off-screen sinking of Titanic.

However, “Titanic” miniseries director Jon Jones, who was in Budapest scouting locations at the time of Kennedy’s first meeting with the producers, saw an audition tape Kennedy made and knew she was the perfect actress to play Muriel.

“He really liked what I had done, what I had read, so he fought for me. So I was very lucky, but it nearly didn’t work out,” she recalled.

Asked how physically demanding the job was, Kennedy was careful not to give too much away about her plotline.

“I do get pitched into the water, so I did spend quite a lot of days in the water and also, obviously, in sort of full Victorian costume, but it was only a few days. I knew it was coming. We expected it. It’s not like I was working down a mine. I think it would be ungracious for me to complain about that. I hate hearing actors moan,” she laughed.

So, how does the mother of four children, who not only acts, but sings and runs her own record label, balance all of her passions?

“It’s a bit of juggle sometimes,” Kennedy confessed. “But I think anyone who works and has children finds it can be a very tricky juggle. When we go away touring, we try to just do very short bursts, about a maximum of 10 days… as opposed to heading off for two or three months without them. That just wouldn’t work for us at all. So it just means you change it around and do it a little differently maybe than other people do it, and prioritize.  Obviously, you think about the kids first and what they need and then after that we see if we can fit the work in around them. But, so far, we’ve managed to keep it all moving along.”

Kennedy, her musician husband Kieran Kennedy and their band are planning a series of concert dates in the United States later this year. A schedule of shows will be posted on



Lambe is enjoying Celtic Woman success

POSTED ON April 4th  - POSTED IN Arts

Lisa Lambe, Máiréad Nesbitt, Susan McFadden and Chloë Agnew of Celtic Woman visited the 86th Floor Observatory at the Empire State Building on their recent trip to New York City.

The Celtic Tiger may be dead, but Celtic Woman roars on. The group’s latest album, appropriately enough named “Believe,” shot to the top of the world music charts—a position occupied by six Celtic Woman albums in a row.

Lisa Lambe, the second most recent addition to the phenomenon begun almost by accident, spoke to us from Celtic Woman’s whistle-stop tour. They play the last of 60 U.S. cities later this month, tour Europe for five months and then possibly return here at Christmastime.

“We’re back to Ireland for a week, before heading off,” Lambe said, speaking in a week in which Celtic Woman packed Radio City Music Hall’s 6,000-seat auditorium and received an award as ambassadors for Ireland from the grand marshal of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, Francis X. Comerford.

“For me to join when the show is at such a peak of success is amazing,” Lambe said. She first worked with some of the originators of Celtic Woman several years ago on the Abbey Theatre’s production of “The Shaughraun,” but her main focus then was on acting, she said.

When an opportunity to join Celtic Woman came over a year ago, she was ready. Lambe knew David Downes, Celtic Woman’s Emmy-award winning producer, and virtuoso fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt, who had been with the group since its inception. Chloë Agnew is now the only one of the original four still with the group. The latest addition is Susan McFadden, who joined in February.

Celtic Woman’s four front women are joined by three backing female vocalists and a band of males, jokingly referred to during the Radio City concert as “our token men.” Dressed in black, against the resplendent women, the male singers and musicians faded to the background. This despite solos by Riverdance-worthy Craig Ashhurst, bagpiper Anthony Byrne who enhanced “Amazing Grace” and Ray Fean, a bodhran player of impressive speed.

Everything about Celtic Woman is quintessentially Irish and female: from the ethereal choreography and lighting to the floaty gowns and long locks, together with the songs evoking pining across the sea or, at least, the distance between two hearts.

Even the ringleted redhead depicted on the cover of the new CD is an artist’s rendition meant to epitomize the Celtic woman, though it’s not Lambe herself, the sole redhead of the group.

The concept group was something of “an experiment,” she agreed. Back in 2004, “everybody got together for one night,” she said referring to the original line-up.

Just as Riverdance took off after a live televised show, so did Celtic Woman. Agnew, the youngest member, who was just 15 at the time, has now been eight years largely on tour. She finished school on the road.

Celtic Woman is riding the wave of popularity being enjoyed by what might be called fusion traditional Irish music, following in the wake of Enya, Riverdance and so on. Indeed Downes, who had the idea for Celtic Woman, is a former musical director of Riverdance.

But, in a world of wannabes, what explains Celtic Woman’s continued place at the top? “It’s like a beautiful cake, there are so many layers: the music, the lighting, the set, the costumes…” All are striking, but Celtic Woman is hard to encapsulate and Lambe trailed off.

Yes, they sang “Danny Boy” at Radio City, an old song that many Irish-born people regard as a received notion of Irishness. However, they also evoked the creative genius of Cirque du Soleil by reinterpreting a “diddley-i” song—just vocalizations, not words—as an argument between young women. The two singers walked down separate aisles of the theater and blasted “da da-DEE-dedanana…” etc., at each other across folded arms.

For further contrast, “A Spacemen Came Traveling,” Chris De Burgh’s 1970s hit, got an entirely new, female energy—or the water element in Daoist philosophy—as the women in their long, silky dresses swayed and waved their outstretched arms to the music.

“I’ve come from a theater background and I try to bring that side, physical theater, in view,” Lambe said. In this, one of her solos, she said, “I was finding if not a trancelike quality, something evocative and mystical.”

That quality also infuses Lambe’s other solo, “Dúlamán” (meaning “channeled wrack,” a type of seaweed). Inspired lighting creates the watery context for this Irish-language song set by the sea, with waves of green light and channels of purple sent out into the auditorium.

As counterbalance, Nesbitt fiddles unto frenzy and Agnew often seems ready to burst off the stage with feeling. Audience members familiar with Twink (AKA Adele King), one  of Ireland’s best known comedic entertainers, will easily see the resemblance with her daughter, the show-stealing Agnew.

A nearly unanimous standing ovation in Radio City suggested that Celtic Woman hit the mark across the emotional spectrum, with 22 varied numbers.

In different concert venues many audience members wear the tour tee-shirts, emblazoned with “Believe,” Lambe observed. “It’s lovely to be surrounded by that word every night.”  Although she noted: “There’s no song called ‘Believe’ on the album.”

Asked why the album is called “Believe” and if it has anything to do with the global crisis, Lambe said, “it probably factored in, though I don’t know. In troubled times, people want moments of reflection and we want to convey inspiration and hope. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors built places like Newgrange that still stand as symbols of faith.”


Fairley’s Stark fights her corner in ‘Thrones’

POSTED ON March 28th  - POSTED IN Arts

In HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Lady Catelyn Stark, played by Michelle Fairley, tries to maintain her family’s ideals in a treacherous world.

Northern Irish actress Michelle Fairley said she was instantly gripped by the blood-soaked story of political intrigue and family treachery the moment she picked up her first script for “Game of Thrones,” the celebrated HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of fantasy novels.

“I thought: ‘Wow! This is an amazing, complicated, dark, twisted world that all these different characters inhabit and somehow they all fit together,’” Fairley told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “And then once I started to read the books, I realized there is so much history between them all. It’s a proper world. It’s a real world with absolute history and family allegiances and vengeance and death and, in the middle of it, you have these incredibly strong women who appear to be wives, mothers, nurturers, carers, providers and then actually when it comes down to the nails, they’re prepared to fight to the end to save their families, to save their honor, to survive.”

Born in Coleraine and raised in Ballycastle, Fairley has appeared in the films “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” “Hideous Kinky” and “The Others,” and has had roles in the TV shows “The Bill,” “Holby City,” “Heartbeat” and “Inspector Morse.”

She portrays Lady Catelyn Stark, a wise and stout-hearted woman who puts her husband and five children above all, on “Game of Thrones,” a sexy, gritty drama about several families battling for control of a fictional medieval kingdom.

By the end of the series’ first season, most of the male leads have been killed off, including the hot-headed, drunken King Robert Baratheon, played by Mark Addy, and his right-hand man, Catelyn’s reasonable, honest husband, Lord Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean. Also gone from this world are Viserys Targaryen and Khal Drogo, the ambitious, power-hungry characters played by Harry Lloyd and Jason Momoa respectively. The Season 1 bloodshed paves the way for the men’s widows, siblings and children to try to unseat or defend King Joffrey, the ruthless teen-age son of Robert’s wife, Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey. Irish actor Jack Gleeson plays Joffrey.

At the heart of the turmoil, Fairley said she sees the Stark family as a grounding force, demonstrating more integrity and mercy than the crown-mad Lannister, Baratheon and Targaryen clans.

“They’re like a touchstone family,” the actress said of the Starks, whom Catelyn helps lead against Joffrey in the new season. “The head of their house is Ned and he is extremely honorable. He is a very complicated character, as well, but ostensibly he has been raising a family to have incredibly good morals. They care about the people they work with. There is a system of honor of how you treat people. Basically, in that cruel, hard world, you have to treat people with respect and what you give out, you get back. It’s a tough world, as well. You will get punished, so you have to be strong within that. They, as a family, try to maintain those ideals within a very complicated, deceitful world and then once Ned goes, you start to see the survival element [taking over] for the rest of them. … So, there’s a bit of rot setting in there, but even though they are changing constantly and evolving, they aren’t becoming immoral. They’re trying to survive and they think what they are doing within that is right.”

So, do cast members of the show live in fear, wondering if the next script will be the death knell for their characters?

“I think everybody is aware that nobody is safe. Everyone is expendable in this world,” Fairley laughed. “From an actor’s point of view, when you’re off on a job like this, it’s pretty clear. They initially tell you, ‘We’ll sign you for this number of years.’ But, basically, they will tell you this is a character who will be in it for five episodes, then they get their head chopped off or they get thrown off a cliff or run over by a horse. As an actor, if you’ve read the books, you know going in exactly what your trajectory is. But having said that, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the main writers, they may like what you’re doing and decide: ‘Hmmm, we’ll keep you a bit longer. We might change your part.’ They don’t always necessarily stick to the stories in the books.”

Fairley said not knowing definitively where the show might take her is one of her favorite aspects of working on “Game of Thrones.”

“It’s fun and there’s something incredibly brave about a series that kills off main characters instantly,” she noted. “It’s wonderful drama and also it leaves the path open for other characters to come into the fore.  Once you kill a main character like Stark, who is good and the moral compass within the piece, there’s nobody there to rein everybody back, and try to argue for reason and goodness, then you open the world up for mayhem and evil, greed and deceit and treachery. It’s incredibly exciting from a drama point of view.

“I think the audiences love it. You love badness in these characters, as well, because it’s all about survival. It’s a cruel world they live and people will do whatever they have to do to survive,” Fairley added.

Shooting on Season 2 of the series has already been completed in Belfast and Croatia and the first new episode is to air on HBO on Sunday. Joining the ensemble for the sophomore season are Stephen Dillane, Carice van Houten and Liam Cunningham.

Asked if it was bittersweet going back to work without so many of her co-stars from Season 1, Fairley confessed: “If somebody leaves, you miss them terribly, but then, of course, it’s a job of work and you have to keep on going.

“Starting Season 2 after the success of Season 1, there’s extra pressure on you,” she said. “It’s like we have the success, so we have to build on it and we have to work even harder. I think that’s what the audience will see when they start watching Season 2. Not only have we got a lot of new characters, which is incredibly exciting, but also, visually, it looks incredible. The pace is wonderful. There’s a lot of humor in there. It just goes at a rate of knots and you’ve got the old characters, as well, and you know exactly what they are up to.

“It’s naughty; it’s dangerous. I just think it’s fabulous,” Fairley said.


The first episode of the second season of “Game of Thrones” will be broadcast on HBO on Sunday at 9 p.m.


Supergroup Lúnasa show how they’re different

POSTED ON March 21st  - POSTED IN Arts

Lúnasa are currently on an East Coast tour.

Irish music fans are well aware of the high-quality, well-balanced show that trad supergroup Lúnasa puts on.  Theirs is serious music for the journey, but it’s music that’s couched in an easy playfulness that belies how complex and different what they do really is.  This difference was readily apparent the Monday evening before St. Patrick’s Day at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, where the group settled in before a full and engaged audience for two long sets.

The music was brilliant.  Monday’s set list represented their well-crafted and modern ideas about narrative and dynamics in traditional music in a very fulfilling way.  Tunes like the upbeat and percussive “Morning Nightcap” let Sean Smith’s fiddle and Trevor Hutchinson’s bass shine, while Sean, Kevin Crawford and Cillian Vallely’s low whistles on “The Last Pint” illuminated the tune’s beautifully plaintive melody and left the audience dazzled.

Readers will be happy to know the legend of Kevin Crawford’s on-stage banter remains fully intact.  Everyone in his universe is fair game – family, friends, bandmates, snooker adversaries, the odd bits of furniture he’s crashed on over the years – and nobody was left out on Monday.  After entertaining with both his music and words onstage, he seemed to make it a point to talk to nearly everyone who remained after the show, even making special time for a small group of young, talented musicians from the NYC session scene (including two members of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra).

One of evening’s high points came late in the show’s second half with a Crawford feature on “The Hula Hoop,” a tune set taken from his just-released CD “Carrying the Tune.”  On Monday he was tastefully accompanied by the group’s new guitarist Ed Boyd (ex-Flook).  On the album, he’s joined by John Doyle (guitar and bouzouki), Mick Conneely (bouzouki) and Brian Morrissey (bodhrán). “Carrying the Tune” is an exquisite declaration from the tradition’s top shelf.  Doyle’s percussive approach and expansive harmonic palette is a perfect foil to Crawford’s driving playing, especially on tracks like “The Clare Connection” and “The Dear Irish Boy.”  I highly recommended this CD, and it was great to hear it represented at the Highline show on Monday.

Cillian Vallely provided a couple of the evening’s other musical highlights.  One was an outstanding and sensitively delivered version of the slow air “Port Na bPúcaí” (a tune associated with the Blasket Islands), which was the talk of the line of musicians standing against the back wall.  Vallely also took the lead on “Snowball,” a set that appears on the group’s most recent album “Lá Nua.”  But before they started, Crawford predictably wasted no time in singling out Cillian’s wife Katy in the audience, noting that Vallely wrote “Ciara’s Dance,” the first of the three tunes in the set, and named it after their oldest daughter (who is a dancer herself).  A proud-looking Vallely fired into the tune brilliantly, and was then joined by the rest of the group on the set’s final two tunes, Johnny McCarthy’s “Burning Snowball” and Tommy Cunniffe’s “Road to Reel.”

An impressive band to see live, Lúnasa is on an East Coast tour of the U.S. throughout March.


Duo act with subtlety rare for NYC stage

POSTED ON March 14th  - POSTED IN Arts

Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett in “I Heart Alice Heart I."

“I Heart Alice Heart I” * By Amy Conroy * Starring Clare Barrett and Amy Conroy * Irish Arts Center * Through March 17

The Irish Arts Center’s executive director, Aidan Connolly, saw Amy Conroy’s amazingly skilled, endlessly charming two-character play “I Heart Alice Heart I” at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival and was determined to bring it to New York.

After the Theatre Festival, where Conroy won the Fishamble Award for Best New Writing and her lithe co-star, Clare Barrett, won the Best Female Performance Award, the show moved to the Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre, where it enjoyed a successful three-week run.

Now the play has arrived in New York, in splendid shape, perhaps ever richer an experience than Connolly thought it was when he saw it in Dublin. The only problem with it is in the title, which places the symbol for the word “hearts” where the word “loves” might be a better fit, not to mention easier to type.

The two young actresses who created the experience, the subtle writer-director Conroy and the deftly charming Clare Barrett, who shares the stage with her for 70 charming, moving minutes, are both new to New York, although the latter played a brief stint in Washington a while back as part of a mixed Irish and American company.

It’s almost impossible to say just how subtle and how effective these young actresses are, playing decades beyond their actual ages as Conroy’s story takes them gracefully into their 60s in the course of an enduring love affair that changes both their lives beyond easy recognition.

Mainly speaking directly to the Irish Arts Center audience, Conroy and Barrett underplay with a subtlety and to a degree that’s very seldom seen on a New York stage.

The result is, of course, that the audience leans forward en masse to devour just about every word that either of them says, even at whisper level, which is sometimes the case.

For reasons known only to her, playwright Conroy has named both of her characters Alice. She is Alice Kinsella, while Barrett is Alice Slattery. The perverse double naming is perhaps slightly confusing to the audience but everything is clarified in good time.

“I Heart Alice Heart I” is so satisfying on just about every level that that modest production deserves a longer New York run than the brief stand the Irish Arts Center promises.

The women are, of course, lesbians, whom we follow through decades of their durable and deeply felt relationship. Alice Slattery, born on the 27th of May, 1948, is the younger; Alice Kinsella was born on the 20th of October, 1946.

Alice Slattery had been born Alice Connolly, but had been married to Liam Slattery. He had died at age 31 of a massive heart attack, leaving her a widow.

It’s somewhat uncertain whether she had had any specifically lesbian experience prior to her encountering Alice Kinsella.

Playwright Conroy has a decided gift for specific detail, which she manages to blend into a smoothly flowing current of remembered details of ordinary life, with references to food and music and movies, all gracefully mixed into an easygoing conversational pattern, with no effort whatever visible.

Conroy described her show as ” fictional but presented as a documentary piece.” Elsewhere, in her introduction, she seems to be attempting to deny that she’s written a play, saying that the “play” between the actors “portraying the Alices is the unwritten script.” She adds slyly that “both of the Alices have been working with the director for nearly a year.”

No matter what image Amy Conroy chooses to suggest, she has in fact written a play, and a very good one, one of the best on any New York stage at the moment, ennobled by two wonderful actresses we haven’t seen before, but who appear to have bright futures.

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