nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
March 5, 2010
Mabou Mines is one of the defining forces of the avant-garde in New York theatre, but artsy audiences expecting any downtown weirdness from Finn will likely be disappointed. Finn—their take on the Celtic legend of Finn McCool—is slickly produced, family friendly, and occasionally fun. Actually, it's so heavy on the spectacle that its "wow factor" winds up alienating us from an already thin script. The result is an evening that's often visually impressive, but overall kind of boring and a little cold.
Finn Mac Cumhail was an ancient Irish tribesman who, as a youth, underwent a series of manhood-proving trials in order to regain leadership of his clan...a pretty straightforward adventure story with a moral at the end. In Finn, it is told by a trio of narrators (who occasionally break into character), with the help of one "real" character, the strapping young Finn himself. It's an interesting way to subvert the narrative—Finn is fully aware from the beginning that he is a pawn in a story that is already written—and director/conceiver Sharon Fogarty and writer Jocelyn Clarke should be given credit for not telling this story the easy way. Sadly their experiment does more harm than good, simply reversing the age-old rule of "show, don't tell." There's far too much telling and not enough showing, with constant bickering between Finn and his narrators over when he'll get to kill the man currently presiding over his clan. It was a relief whenever they finally leapt into action, either to kill a monster or portray a talking fish.
This places the burden of interest on the super-fancy design, which drenches the performance space (NYU's state-of-the-art Skirball Center) in evocative lighting, lush new-agey Celtic music, and monumental animation projections. These elements are often mesmerizing and sometimes enhance the action nicely, particularly in Finn's battle scenes. But when not effective they tend to have the opposite effect, alienating us from the actors and the story. The problem is magnified by the overmiced voices of the actors and the sheer scale of the set, which dwarfs the performers and keeps them eerily detached. It's a shame, because they're all quite engaging when given the chance to act, particularly Robbie Collier Sublett as Finn and Jarlath Conroy as the lead storyteller.
Despite its problems, it remains clear throughout that Fogarty has a great love of this story, and truly wishes to convey the sense of wonder that it's always held for her. While her minimalist children's theatre approach to the script has its heart in the right place, it so far lacks the visceral energy or the intimacy that are needed to pull it off. This piece was a world premiere and supposedly still has time to find its way. A little more magic through the actors and a little less through technology, and they might really have something here.