A Man of No Importance, presented by indie women productions, is a bit of a capricious musical that explores a time, not too long ago, when religion-based intolerance still pervaded most aspects of Irish society.
Based on the 1994 film of the same name, AMONI tells the story of Alfie Byrne, a bus conductor in 1964 Dublin, who also directs lacklustre church group of theatricals. His love of high art (and his closeted homosexuality) gets him into trouble, however, when he decides that St. Imelda’s Players are going to do Oscar Wilde’s Salome. An attempt by Oscar Wilde at Symbolist drama, Salome would be considered tame by today’s standards, but for much of its history was considered scandalous for its frank depiction of sexuality in a Bible story, as well as the provocative nature of the iconic Dance of the Seven Veils. Facing an uphill battle against the members of the theatrical troupe/straight-laced Catholic community of 1960s Ireland, Alfie’s dedication to his art becomes a metaphor for his struggle to maintain a sense of self in a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense.
Shaun Toohey shines as Alfie. The determined enthusiasm he brings to the role perfectly fits the character of Alfie, who is so very much himself in a time and place that’s drifting further and further away from him. The remainder of the cast has their moments as well, standouts including Arlene Watson as Alfie’s spinster sister Lily, Justice Tremblay as nervous newcomer and would-be Salome Adele Rice, and Richard Cliff as stage manager Baldy, whose otherwise unremarkable role includes a surprisingly emotional song of longing for the character’s deceased wife. The biggest weakness in the acting is perhaps the choice for the cast to perform with Irish accents – at best the accents are inconsistent, and some performers try a lot harder with it than others.
The directing and choreography are capably done, and blend in well with the minimalistic set, which consists of a lamp-post and 10 chairs. The arrangement of the chairs nicely represents the interior of a bus, a pub, the church hall, and other locales, with clean and effective transitions from scene to scene. The treatment of the meta framing narrative (the performance acknowledges itself as performance at the very beginning and at the very end) feels a little flat, with little difference in energy between the two levels of dramatic awareness. There’s not much dancing per se in AMONI, but there is a delightful tap dancing moment with performer Sarah Olberg as the amateur choreographer who misguidedly suggests tap for a modernized Dance of the Seven Veils.
The musical side of the production meets with mixed success. The choral singing segments are nicely done, with the cast attaining some pleasant harmonies, though it is occasionally difficult to make out their words due to a few issues with sound levels. The sound levels problem, I think, can be attributed to a logistical issue that was solved uncreatively and with an unfortunate domino effect. The issue is this: it’s really hard to make musicals with live accompaniment work in theatre spaces that don’t have an orchestra pit or anything of the kind (and most theatre spaces in Ottawa suffer from this problem – off the top of my head, only Centrepointe, Shenkman, and the NAC’s Southam Hall have orchestra pits). As a result, the 5-piece band occupies a sizable chunk of stage left, in full view of the audience, lending an unintentional Brechtian element to the performance. Since not all of the actors can overpower the volume of the live band, the cast is outfitted with microphones. The microphones seem unnecessary for a space the size of the Gladstone, but with the band where it is, the mics are the lesser of two evils, even though this setup leads to the sound levels problem, occasional technical hiccups with the mics, and also the musical director’s counting sometimes being very audible during some musical numbers.
Despite technical issues, A Man of No Importance is an enjoyable show that lightly explores dark themes like sexual repression, religious censorship of art, and the eternal debate regarding the validity of art for art’s sake. Still the choice of play seems an odd one: why this play here and now? indie women productions’ mandate explicitly states that they are interested in producing “particularly plays and musicals that feature strong female roles”, but AMONI doesn’t seem to fit that mould very well. The two strongest female characters – Alfie’s sister Lily and his protégé Adele Rice – are defined by their relationships with the men in their lives; Lily stays unmarried in order to keep house for her bachelor brother, and Adele struggles to find self-esteem as an unwed soon-to-be mother. AMONI then could be seen as a sort of cautionary tale to how a society based on religious ideology puts all sorts of people into boxes that don’t accurately represent them, and a reminder that we’ve come a long way in a fairly short time – Ireland is now one of the most liberal countries in the world for LGBT rights. It also fits in with the growing amount of queer theatre being produced in Ottawa, although that in itself isn’t a very strong argument for this play choice. The script also relies on the audience having some knowledge of a somewhat obscure Oscar Wilde play: even though Salome is a quick read, putting on a show that relies on knowledge of another show presents difficulties in making it accessible to the audience. Odd as the choice of play may seem however, A Man of No Importance presents an unlikely hero taking on a task that cannot possibly go well, and it remains a compelling story.
A Man of No Importance
An indie women production
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Maxim David
Musical Direction by Paul Legault
Stage Managed by Carrie Milks
Set Design by Lynda Cronin
Sound Design by Mark Tye
Lighting Design by David Magladry
Costume Design by Melanie Evans
Props Design by C. Lee Bates
Hair & Make-up Design by Kim Shields
Assistant Stage Managers: Catherine Boisvenue, Jesse Lalonde
Promotional Material by Tracy Noonan
At the Gladstone (910 Gladstone Avenue)
March 22-25, 2017 at 7:30pm and March 25 at 2:30pm
Running Time: approximately 2.5 hours with one intermission