Mills costigan rsz

Fest’s ‘abundance of great stories’

Hayley Mills, who won the Award for Best Actress at this year’s 1st Irish Festival, with Gina Costigan in “Party Face,” which is on at City Center Stage II through April 8. PHOTO: JEREMY DANIEL

By Orla O’Sullivan

Before being admitted to a 1st Irish performance in an apartment over a bar, audience members were given their instructions. First was, “Take off your clothes.”

This slip of the tongue (meant to be “Take off your coats”) was one of many dramatic moments in the month-long festival, which concluded this week. It also broke the ice for 30 strangers about to be squeezed together in a relatively small space with performers enacting the anguish of opioid abuse.

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At home with the character, as it were—or four characters who performed monologues commissioned by Origin Theatre Company.

New writing is an element of every 1st Irish festival, as are competing plays (seven this year) plus special events.

As Origin 1st celebrated its 10th anniversary, actor Shane Allen made his festival debut.

Allen is one to watch. He’s a natural whose improvisational touches really made you feel you were entering his wreck of a bedroom in the “Building Pain” monologues.

Like most of the festival shows, it was scheduled to end this month, but there’s talk of a possible extension. Another, “The Jealousy of Emer,” an almost S&M styled treatment of a W.B. Yeats play, has added two weekends, to now end Feb. 11.

Other 1st Irish shows with notable performances run as late as April 8 (“Party Face,” to be reviewed in a future issue). Another two at the Irish Repertory Theatre run to Feb. 18, “Jimmy Titanic” and "Disco Pigs."

There were several big names in this big-anniversary festival, though it was often less known performers and writers who most impressed me.

Big names included Hayley Mills, an Oscar winner in her early teens in 1961 , whose performance in “Party Face” won the Best Actress award, announced at a ceremony on Monday in Manhattan.

Evanna Lynch, another big name, having been a "Harry Potter" movie kid, Luna Lovegood, made her U.S. stage debut at the Rep in "Disco Pigs".

The Dublin playwright Enda Walsh returned triumphant to the festival.

Heslin introduced Walsh to U.S. audiences 15 years ago, with his production of “Misterman,” out of which grew the idea for Origin Theatre Company.

Walsh, now internationally known, was even sought out by Bowie as an artistic collaborator. "Disco Pigs" rode a wave here from London’s West End.

The low-budget but vastly more enjoyable “Guy Walks into a Bar,” by Don Creedon, was locally grown in the Bronx and staged at the New York Irish Center just across the East River from Manhattan in Long Island City.

All parties shared in a Fringe Award and cast member Michael Mellamphy won festival Best Actor for a second time. The real-life bar owner played, amongst others, a desperado who goes to ladies night in drag for the free drink.

Gina Costigan also caught my eye, in “Party Face,” and Maria Deasy in “Dyin’ For It.” She seemed to hold together a play which, though frequently funny, seemed unsure of what it which genre it was settling on.

Colin Hamell handily played 22 characters in “Jimmy Titanic,” a play that seemed even better than four years ago when it ran in 1st Irish. That was at the New York Irish Center.

This benefitted from the wonderful staging the Rep invariably provides (even the blue-black that flooded the smaller, downstairs theatre gave one the impression of drowning).

Not that it’s a downer. Bernard McMullan irreverently imagines a heaven where Titanic victims enjoy special cachet. God is a chain-smoking gurrier, Archangel Gabrielle is on the take and Jimmy is on the make with women.

McMullan deservedly won Best Playwright with his indecently good first play.

Festival first comers included Sarah Street, who played a solid role in “Dyin’” and, more impressively, wrote Allen’s opioids monologue.

It can be hard to separate the writing from a great performance. And the work of a director? Arguably, it’s a bit like housework, only noticed when something is amiss.

Still, John Keating did a good job orchestrating different parties and places on the set of “Dyin’” and was recognized with Best Director. And director Tim Ruddy used to good effect the simple set in “Guy,” the bar itself fold around a character under duress, like the proverbial walls closing in on him.

The content of the 10th 1st Irish ranged from that accessibly low bar to highbrow: a rarely produced poetic play, performed in ancient Japanese style (“Emer,” which won Best Design).

The special events spanned from meditation to a pub-crawl. The festival’s Shakespearean-infused ShakesBEER had some G.B. Shaw in the mix.

Ten years and more than 160 plays on, Heslin, said what most surprises him, looking back is, “the abundance of great stories from Ireland.”

My biggest surprise this anniversary festival (besides the stripping request) came at a special event.

A husband learnt only in the course of preparing for that event that his wife of 12 years had had two miscarriages in a prior relationship. Everything tumbled out during Denise Dunphy’s story, one of many recorded and set to music by her husband, known as Stano.

Audiences heard them in a darkened room, which said, Dunphy, cousin of prominent soccer journalist Eamon Dunphy, “makes people really listen.”

After her moving tale, audience members stood around afterwards, sharing their own. As Dunphy said, “My stories are your stories.”

Many were people who would not otherwise see each other, had 1st Irish not provided an excuse. It felt like there was a hole in the social calendar when 1st Irish did not take place, as usual, in September, having been moved to a new January slot.

We have a debt to Origin 1st Irish, not just for what happens on stage to make us proud, but for bringing us together to share our stories.

The Echo’s Orla O’Sullivan was a member of the judging panel for this year’s 10th Anniversary Origin 1st Irish Festival, along with Harry Haun of the New York Observer and the actor and opera singer Elmore James.