nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
November 13, 2008
Inspired by a daring rescue of six Irish prisoners in 1875, Catalpa is a sensational sea-faring, epic one-man saga conceived and performed by Donal O'Kelly with live music by Trevor Knight. Following its premier in Dublin and world tour through Melbourne, London, Chicago, Toronto, Paris, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Geneva, Catalpa has anchored in New York at the Donaghy Theatre at the Irish Arts Center for a limited engagement through the end of November.
In a prologue of lyric verse, a screenwriter expresses his frustration at having his screenplay rejected by Hollywood producers and subsequently invites them and us into his imagination to "see the pictures in [his] head." With the swooping flight of a large winged sea-bird, O'Kelly takes us to the 19th century whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts where husband and father George Anthony is called upon to lead a crew of men across the Atlantic, as captain of the whale ship Catalpa, to rescue six Irish prisoners from a penal colony in Fremantle, Australia. If any of this sounds familiar, Melville fans will surely call to mind the epic whale hunting adventures of Moby Dick, which has no doubt influenced the rendering of Catalpa.
While O'Kelly invites us into his own imagination, Catalpa is largely dependent on ours. Luckily we don't have to work too hard since he brings this tale to life with an impressive use of physicality, gesture, and vocal inflection. The additional use of colored light cues and a fantastic musical score establish the myriad tones in this piece. The stage is bare aside from a white muslin sheet, which O'Kelly brilliantly uses in more ways than one. The crafted language is particularly transfixing with its rhyming stanzas and lyric beats which paint the sea and all its colors.
A solo show demands its audience to trust, suspend belief, listen, and imagine. O'Kelly commands and receives these elements to bring Catalpa alive, and the result is quite astonishing. An expert storyteller, O'Kelly delivers a rich and poignant tale that, apart from its seemingly large scale, is essentially about love; with the dozens of characters aside, what sticks out most are the instances when the characters yearn for it. From the image of George's wife Greta, in her crimson dress atop a staircase, urging him not to go to sea, to the alluring French servant girl Mary Tondut, whose touch was "like fire...the softness of her spirit singing through her skin," O'Kelly brings to life precious moments that are equally transporting as the great passages of a literary novel. Covering the span of a year's voyage at sea, Catalpa invites you to venture upon a mythical life-changing journey that shouldn't be missed.