Anyone who has been to Ireland knows that no matter how bad things are an Irish jig will lighten up the occasion. “A Couple of Blaguards”, ably directed by Sheri Lee Miller, brings the joy of foot-stomping, hand-clapping Irish songs to life in a typically Celtic melodramatic story of highs and lows, mostly lows. There’s a bit of history, perhaps some exaggeration and a little blending of truth and twisted memory, but the overall theme of suffering, including near starvation, paternal abandonment and the death of a young sibling, is happily crafted into comedic humor and moving drama, liberally interspersed with uplifting jigs and heartrending folk ballads.
The McCourt brothers, Frank and Malachy, rascally blaguards (a.k.a. blaggard or blackguard), did a reverse emigration from Brooklyn to Ireland during the Great Depression when they were young children, lived a life of abject poverty in Limerick, then immigrated back to the U.S. as teens. The scrappy brothers worked all kinds of jobs, perhaps engaging in some petty thievery along the way, but eventually found their way to respectable, or at least semi-respectable, work as a teacher (Frank) and actor/bar owner (Malachy). After toiling for many years in their respective fields a fraternal collaboration resulted in “A Couple of Blaguards”, which they wrote and performed off and on until Frank’s death in 2009. They rose to prominence separately, Frank by publishing the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Angela’s Ashes”, and Malachy though his acting and writing. Readers of “Angela’s Ashes” and the sequel “Tis” will be familiar with the basic outline of their lives, brought to life on the stage in “A Couple of Blaguards”, but this version of their life is filled with humor and grace, touching lightly on the many tragedies that befell them.
The already intimate Cinnabar Theater sets a new standard for closeness, intermingling the Irish pub set, including a handsome wooden floor provided by Heritage Salvage with cocktail tables interspersed between small groups of seats at the front, and one side that is usually blocked to spectators, bringing the audience within inches of the actors. The set looks like a real Irish bar with Guinness and Harp beer and other touches that make it seem like the bartender will start serving drinks to the audience at any moment. Adding to the cabaret style are those fun-loving audience members who bring their drinks from the lobby and sit back, ready to be entertained by a good dose of blarney, and they’re not likely to be disappointed.
Adding a note of authenticity are the musicians, who display a deep understanding of traditional Irish music. Youkali, a Sonoma-based band, play like they grew up in Ireland, no doubt drawing on fiddler Daniel Kahane’s involvement with the Celtic group, Greenhouse, but all contributing to the rollicking rendition of lively pub music. Roxanne Oliva’s accordion prowess is impressive, complementing the fiddle, while Josh Fossgreen’s bass and Music Director Jim Peterson’s guitar add depth to the ensemble.
This two man show, supported by the musical ensemble, showcases the talents of the capable duo, Steven Abbott, who plays Frank, and Tim Kniffin, who plays Malachy, who do an admirable job with the many vignettes and fragments that illustrate the travails of the McCourt family on both sides of the pond, mixing a strong dose of humor with impressive vocal chops as they work their way through myriad stories and songs, some poignant, many humorous. The interplay between them is warm and affectionately brotherly and they include audience members and musicians as they transform themselves, using simple props like a scarf, into various other characters to broaden the effectiveness of the narrative. Kniffin, in particular, can mold his elastic face into grimaces and other forms that allow him to believably shift between characters seamlessly.
The Cinnabar Theater, celebrating its 40th anniversary, has a storied history of its own, transforming a 1908 two-room schoolhouse into a vibrant 99-seat playhouse showcasing varied art forms from plays to dance to opera, along with an active arm in theater education with the Cinnabar Young Repertory Theater. In 1970 Marvin Klebe, a successful baritone with the San Francisco Opera, and his wife, Jan, sought to break out of the confines of traditional theater and collaboratively experiment with creative outlets. Various theater groups have cycled through the hall, contributing to the eclectic venue that produces opera, musical theater, dramatic theater, a chamber music series, dance and special festivals. Their goal is to “present the finest new, experimental, and traditional performing arts, in an intimate and ultimately passionate and meaningful manner, with the purpose of keeping us all in touch with what it means and what it takes to be a human being”.
“A Couple of Blaguards” is good Irish fun that weaves Celtic storytelling magic that will pull at your heartstrings one minute and have you laughing out loud the next with traditional Irish folk music that will leave you wanting more.
“A Couple of Blaguards” runs through January 27, 2013
Tickets: $35 General; $32 Seniors 65 & Over; $25 Age 22 & Under. Reservations strongly recommended.
To reach the Cinnabar Theater from San Francisco by car (approximately 1 hour, depending on traffic):
- Take U.S. 101 North
- Take Old Redwood Highway Exit (#476) toward Penngrove
- Turn left onto Old Redwood Highway
- Continue onto Petaluma Blvd
- Arrive at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, on the right, up the steep driveway