Theatre Mirror Reviews - "St. Nicholas"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark

"St Nicholas"

by Conor McPherson
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly

Designed by J. Michael Griggs
Production Stage Manager Meg Boone

A Man.................................................Richard McIlvain

The trick is not "projecting your voice, from your diaphragm" so that everyone in the hall can hear each vowel and consonant; any actor can do that. No, the real trick is making everyone in that hall stop breathing in order to hear your whisper, they are that intent on what you are saying. Richard McElvain uses it, as well as other little tricks, several times in the Sugan Theatre Company's production of Colon McPherson's "St. Nicholas" --- but you might miss them if you're not used to seeing plays with a dispassionate critic's eye, so perhaps I should give you a little list of things you might watch out for, if you're not so totally absorbed by the story and the performance you can't think like a critic does. That's what we get the big bucks for, isn't it --- seeing what you wouldn't notice unless we pointed them out for you?

Well, McElvain walks, too. I mean, he walks into the space (in total darkness mind you) slowly, heavily, loudly, and actually into and through the audience (and this in total darkness as I said; Ghod knows why he doesn't break his neck!), before starting to speak, again in total darkness. The whole first act he's all over the place, sitting in empty seats for a sentence or so of what looks like actual chat. But other times, it's a pure pleasure to see him walk. Okay, maybe Director Carmen O'Reilly has something to do with when he walks, and where, and maybe how, but you won't be thinking of any director pulling puppet-strings with this man onstage. He says "we strolled" at one point, and he strolls. He rushes and leaps about the space like a madman in places. When he walks behind those four or five solid wooden pillars that Designer J. Michael Griggs has provided, it's like he's walked into a different world. He positively floats once or twice, as though wafted on the breezes of pure emotion. He throws himself, palms forward, against the black back wall at one point, and he leaves the stage at the end of act one in a sort of somnambulistic glide of almost ethereal unworldliness. That man moves across the playing-space the way a violinist's fingers caress the very soul of a sonata.

Oh, and eye-contact. He's got that knack of looking someone, some specific someone there in the darkness, so intently in their eyes you'd think he was staring straight into their mind. And, as the evening progresses, you'd swear he had been looking over the assembly cataloguing every person, and deciding which of the oncoming lines he'd deliver exactly to that one person alone --- until, when he says a line directly to You, it's like a divine gift.

But acting isn't an abstract, a pure art. Even a mime has to have something to say. It may well be that if Richard McElvain read the telephone book the audience would have an exhilarating theatrical experience, but Conor McPherson's play gives him the chance to focus the strutting of his stuff on an intricately fascinating story.

Okay, two stories, interconnected.

Act one concerns the soul-less shell of a typical dramatic critic --- the sort who "never went to the trouble of forming opinions; I just had them." One of the best-paid hack journalists on his Dublin paper he strings words together so facilely he only works but an hour a week and spends the rest of his time drinking and pontificating in pubs, to avoid any real human contact with his wife, son, daughter, or any of the theatrical artists he thoughtlessly savages in print. The very sort of feared and lionized critical terror who could fall hopelessly in love not with the lady playing "Salome" but with the way she moves her arms during the dance of the seven veils --- a love he insists is only partly, irrelevantly, lust. This unsettlingly accurate portrait --- the sort that has every critic in the hall knowingly pointing out colleagues who Must be the models in order to mask their awareness that they, themselves, fit the picture to a T --- is so searingly self-contained I could have left the theatre at the intermission convinced I had seen the best play of the entire year.

But there is a very different, in no sense less powerful, act two.

Here McPherson deals at length with the possibility that vampires, rather than the cliché-ridden fantasies of films, might be real. (I toyed a bit with the idea myself, though in a short novel, and I never had a genius like Richard McElvain bring it so effortlessly to life.) Here "vampire" is not a metaphor for Hollywood producers, or the interminable multivolume self-indulgence of Anne Rice, but something believably insidious and compelling: a being without any conscience, without even the ability to reflect.

And the whole thing might be the result of a nervous breakdown anyway so, except for the convincing, compelling performance of one gifted actor alone upon the BCA's Black Box stage, none of it --- thank Ghod --- could really be real.

Just, even though it's early, don't walk home alone after the show. Hell, if the first act was so damned accurate.........
I mean, ------ you never know!


"St.Nicholas" (till 2 October)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON
1(617) 426-2787

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