Mikel Murfi stars in “I Hear You and Rejoice” and “The Man in the Woman’s Shoes” at the Irish Arts Center. PHOTO BY PAT REDMOND
By Orla O’Sullivan
You wouldn’t expect a play with “rejoice” in the title to open at a funeral. But Mikel Murfi’s sequel to his play that performed at the Irish Arts Center in 2015 does.
Yes, Irish people have a droll habit of claiming that funerals are more fun than weddings, and this one is highly entertaining. However, for those who saw “The Man in the Woman’s Shoes” at the IAC a few years ago, it is shocking to realize that the happy ending of that play, has given way to tragedy in the next. Both are running at the IAC on different dates until Oct. 20-21.
“I Hear You and Rejoice” is set seven years later in the life of Pat Farnon, a mute cobbler, now almost blind, too, who lives in the rural west of Ireland.
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Though Pat would surely specify not just the town in County Sligo but the parish and townland since the plays are love songs not just to a woman but to village life with all its intimacies.
Half the craic of Irish country living is knowing your neighbors’ foibles and eccentricities, the play suggests through a panoply of quirky characters Murfi has created and convincingly embodies.
Those who return to this show include local businessman Huby Patterson, by his own admission, “ostensibly a little man with no neck,” Jimmy, the effete simpleton, and Casimir Marshall, “vocal archenemy” of the local bishop.
Towering over them all, in the ether, as in life, is the deceased. Kitsy Rainey was a woman at whose birth the universe expanded to accommodate her, one neighbor suggests. This formidable team manager of the parish Gaelic football team, when not roaring abuse at players or knocking out linesmen, is typically adjusting her ample bust, while pulling herself up to her full height.
Her take-charge way continues on the Other Side, as she has given very specific instructions to the priest for her funeral as a pre-condition for a Christian burial. These include allowing Jimmy to lead the responsorial psalm (or “P-sam,” as he calls it) by singing a jaunty ditty (‘Fal-diddly-da…”) and having the anti-clerical Casimir say the” Our Father.”
Kitsy had reworked the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who rejoice, which probably includes those from neighboring parishes, if they have the neck to show their faces here today.”
No doubt the old football enemies are there because, whatever the infighting, country communities tend to pull together.
Murfi was commissioned to write these plays celebrating the elderly by local government and the Hawk’s Well Theatre in his native Sligo.
His characters with their convincing dialogue arose from his visits to senior centers. More than 300 performances since have brought him back venues including those centers.
He is an exceptional performer, whose training in movement with a contemporary of Marcel Marceau’s is often evident. And he creates wonderful sound effects, whether an instrumental version of “La Vie En Rose” or a flock of sheep. (His producer in developing these plays is also his life partner, Eithne Hand, the former head of RTE Radio 1.)
Murfi conjures this world with nothing but a chair on stage.
The first play, “Shoes,” documents a five-mile walk to town. The second, “Rejoice,” recalls the seven-year journey into a love he never expected to know.
Everyone is worthy of love and deserves to be celebrated is the simple message achingly conveyed through sometimes silly antics. Murfi is unapologetic about creating lovable, sentimental characters, although, he notes, “Some consider sentimental [theatre] not as worthy as visceral and dramatic.”
He certainly gives his audience what he calls their right to feel.
Anyone who has been bereaved could relate to a stunned Pat sharing, “I thought this day would never come.”
“I Hear You and Rejoice” written and performed by Mikel Murfi, is at the Irish Arts Center, 535 West 51st St. on alternating dates with the play it builds on, “The Man in the Woman’s Shoes.” Tickets for the run, ending Oct. 20-21 from irishartscenter.org.