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Theater Review: Child’s magic rides a white horse

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

TIR NA N’OG, from Jim Sheridan’s "Into the West." Directed by Greg Banks. Featuring Craig Edwards, David Annen and Cerianne Roberts. Travelling Light Theater Company at New Victory Theater, 300 West 42nd St., NYC. Through Feb. 13.

The sheer, hypnotic power of inspired storytelling takes center stage at the New Victory Theater and holds it in a vicelike grip for the 70 minutes required for the Travelling Light Theater Company to perform "Tir Na n’Og," which will be on view through the weekend.

The brief and brilliant show, performed by three sterling actors and two fine musicians, is Travelling Light’s version of the poignant tale told in the 1993 film "Into the West," directed by Mike Newell from a script by Jim Sheridan.

The title selected by the troupe, based in Bristol, England, is the name of a magical white horse, a show-jumper that becomes a vital part of the lives of two young children in an impoverished Dublin family, eventually carrying them toward their destiny on Ireland’s wild Western coast.

The much-beloved movie starred Gabriel Byrne and his then-wife, Ellen Barkin. It failed at the box office, apparently because the distributors failed to come up with a suitable marketing campaign and seemed unable to decide whether they were dealing with a children’s film, a fantasy or, as proved to be the case, a shining but unclassifiable item.

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The dazzlingly imaginative Travelling Light treatment bears, to an extent, a certain similarity to "The Ballad of Tom Joad," the recording Woody Guthrie made in 1940 to bring the story of John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" to mainly rural families unable to afford even the dime it cost to see John Ford’s movie version of the novel, but who might hear the song on the radio.

Sheridan’s screenplay for "Into the West," ostensibly an original work, owes an indisputable something to the late French writer-director Albert Lamroisse, whose brilliant "White Mane" ("Crin Blanc"), a grand-prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952, also concerned a young boy and a mysterious, possibly supernatural white horse on whose back the child rides into the surging waves, in the case of the French equivalent, not on Ireland’s West Coast, but the surf pounding on the beaches of Camargue, a marshy island off the Provencal coast.

In "Into the West," the protagonists are two little brothers from the Dublin tenements, but when Travelling Light’s producer, Jude Merrill, and the director of "Tir Na n’Og," Greg Banks, first conceived the project, opening it in Bristol on Sept. 20, 1995, the siblings had been converted to sister.

In its present incarnation, the story’s central figures are a young brother and sister, the boy somewhat older than the girl. The modest Travelling Light aggregation’s actors are Craig Edwards, Cerianne Roberts and David Annen, and its musicians, onstage throughout, are Fiona Barrow and composer-performer Thomas Johnson.

All three actors play a collection of characters, but Edwards and Roberts, much of the time, are the children, Finn and Ally, while the richly versatile Annen is their father, the Byrne role in the movie, and their grandfather. His finest moments, perhaps, come when he plays the title character, the magnificent equine, poignantly and evocatively. Good as he is elsewhere, Annen is an absolutely spectacular Tir Na n’Og. Musician Barrow’s versatile contributions range from fiddle to mandolin to guitar and voice, while Johnson, as both composer and performer, gives "Tir Na n’Og" a virtual magic carpet, unobtrusive but endlessly supportive, on which the journey is accomplished.

The New Victory Theaters’ well-produced publicity brochure estimates Travelling Light’s lovely production as being suitable for children aged 8 and up, but at the first Saturday matinee, much of the audience was clearly somewhat younger than that, which, amazingly, proved to be no problem whatever.

Working on the efficiently suggestive minimal set designed by Katie Sykes, a car seat here, a couple of lengths of split wood fence there, to which a few fragments and details are added as needed, the group’s storytellers seem to have keyed in, with astonishingly exactitude, to the lengths to which children are able to visualize what they are urged to "see," regardless of what is or is not actually placed before them.

Perhaps surprisingly, "Into the West," a film that made extraordinary use of the spectacular landscape and seascape of Ireland’s West, turns out to be a nearly ideal subject for conversion into one of the Travelling Light Theater Company’s mind-stretching ventures.

Wonderful as the Sheridan-Newell film was and, in its ongoing life as a rentable reality, continues to be, it’s entirely possible that the imaginations of lots of people, adults and children alike, fortunate enough to have paid a visit to the New Victory Theater during Travelling Light’s brief residence there, will conjure up visions of "Tir Na n’Og" and its three actors and two musicians when the subject of the gallant white horse and the children who loved it comes to mind.

The Travelling Light Theater Company and its wondrous "Tir Na n’Og" are finite commodities, alas. After this Sunday’s late afternoon matinee, they will be gone, disappearing into memory much as the miraculous white horse of the legend vanishes into the beautifully roiling waters of Ireland’s magnificent West in the production’s final moments, never to return, except in the imaginations with which they have worked such wonders.

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