By Conor McPherson
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Ronnie Ruff
Brian Hemmingsen (Photo: Ian C. Armstrong)
Scena Theatre’s latest production of St Nicholas begins with the simple lines. "When I was a boy, I was afraid of the dark." Brian Hemmingsen’s booming voice rattles the rafters at Church Street with his sometimes funny, sometimes spooky reading of Conor McPherson’s story of an angry theatre critic in search of the next after show party, vampires and love. "I wasn’t dying … I was dead." he reads (more on that later). The critic brings scotch laced washes of colorful dialog to the table, explaining to the audience that real vampires count rice kernels and dislike garlic only because their breath suffers. He is a stereotypical bundle of egotism and weakness and takes us on quite an expedition — commencing with crabby criticisms of life and his writing career to the unexpected, feeble obsession for a youthful actress that lures him to London. There he moves from mean-spirited desperation to complete shame and at last, after a time pimping for the vampires, a lurid reinvention of his humanity. It is all about the rescue, after all.
Conor McPherson’s plays have been described as mesmerizing, unsettling, and even sometimes uncanny. His work is a gala of storytelling. The Weir, for which he is best known, describes five Irishmen in a bar telling ghost stories. In 1997 he wrote St. Nicholas, with its cast of one. His one-man show is a beautifully rich and textured piece of Irish storytelling in much in the same category as Enda Walsh’s Misterman, seen in DC last year and truly enjoyed by this critic. While St. Nicholas is not as edgy or dark as that play, it is deeper and far more accessible. McPherson since has explained, "When two or more actors talk to each other on stage, it’s easy for us to pretend they’re not actually in a theater. But with one actor talking only to the audience, what we have in front of us is a guide".
In this production, Mr. Hemmingsen’s failure to learn the script in time for opening night keeps him from becoming our guide and we find ourselves disappointed in the maiden voyage. Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Hemmingsen read his lines with undeniable skill, but reading one’s lines, no matter how well, is not acting. When "the" actor in a one man show has to read his lines, the show never recovers.
Scena’s production stays true to the simplicity of McPherson’s play. A simple stage devoid of useless clutter or decoration seems to only highlight the playwright’s gift for brilliant language and imaginative storytelling. The lighting and sound designs are simple measures as well — Robert McNamara’s thoughtful direction keeps this production from falling too hard onto the shaky theatrical landscape.
My suggestion for Washington area theatre goers is to wait a week or so, let Brian Hemmingsen master his lines and then give this show a visit. I think you may be quite happy you did because while Scena’s early missteps are pretty bad, this is a good play. Remember what you read here. In my mind, it is all about the salvation, folks.
St. Nicholas runs thru May 6 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are $25-$35 available, online.