NEW YORK—There's no doubt that Donal O'Kelly is a great storyteller, as his one-man show Catalpa, (which he wrote, directed, and performed) clearly shows. However, his method of telling the story results in mixture of mediums that creates a barrier between the tale and audience.
The show is based on a true story (and forgotten bit of history), one filled with romance, pride, indecision, double-crosses, broken promises, passion, and death. In 1875, the whaling vessel Catalpa, under the command of Captain George Anthony, made a daring voyage to Freemantle, Australia, then a penal colony for Great Britain, in an attempt to rescue six Irish prisoners who were part of the Fenian Rebellion of 1865 against British rule. On a bare stage, O'Kelly sets out to recreate the Catalpa's journey, as well as the lives of the men and women caught up in the politics of history.
As the tale begins, George Anthony, a once a proud sea-faring man, is now chained to a ledger and desk. Having married the daughter of his former employer, he promised her dying mother never to go to sea again. Now, he and his wife Gretta and their young daughter are struggling financially.
While he loves his family dearly, George's mind is never far from the sea. One night his father-in-law and Irishmen John Breslin and John Devoy meet with George, explaining they want him to take command of the whaling ship Catalpa and help free the prisoners in Australia. This will entail George taking the ship to the whaling grounds of the North Atlantic for a time, and then crossing the equator, rounding the tip of Africa and heading for Freemantle, where they will be met by Breslin who will have previously arranged the escape.
Sweetening the offer for George is that he will be captain of the Catalpa and stands to make a substantial amount of money with his share of any of the whales he kills along the way. Torn with indecision, he eventually accepts the job, knowing the heartbreak it will bring to his wife and child, and trying to ignore the ghostly whispers of his deceased mother-in-law as she reminds him of his promise.
In addition to the pain George causes when he leaves home, wondering if he will still have a family to return to, there are other tribulations: whispers among the crew that the captain is losing his grip, a mighty battle with a whale, and a confrontation with a spy Devoy has put on the Catalpa to take matters into his own hands if the rescue does not go as planned. When they finally reach Freemantle, it falls to George to take care of the mess Breslin has caused when he has gotten a young girl "in a family way." Finally there is the escape attempt itself as George struggles to prevent shedding of innocent blood while being forced to compromise more and more of his values in the name of freedom and the hope of getting home alive.
It’s a compelling story to be sure, and O'Kelly deftly brings it to life. However, instead of taking the point of view of George or another character, O'Kelly tells it from the viewpoint of a frustrated screenwriter who has written this story and then relates it as if he were reading the screenplay, often with directing notes, i.e. "cut to, screen caption" etc. While the tale is still strong enough to carry the audience along, the cinematic elements create a wall between the story and audience where one is simply observing the action instead of being in the thick of it.
O'Kelly also make the mistake of mentioning actors who he feels should play two of the roles (Tom Cruise as George and Angela Jolie as Gretta) instead of letting them be ones the audience creates in their minds. He also uses a bit too many sound effects, such as the rowing of a whaleboat, clopping of horses' hoofs, etc.
O'Kelly is very good in terms of characterization (especially with the tormented and conscious-stricken George) as well as setting the scenes and delineating the various roles. He also makes an especially convincing ghost trying to make George see the dangers of going back on his word. However, his portrayal of a French serving girl provoked laughter from the audience in a scene meant to be emotionally moving.
Direction-wise, O'Kelly does a masterful job, never losing the flow of the narrative and keeping the action moving smoothly. However, the wrap-up of the story left a few loose ends dangling—such as not having a final meeting between George and his father-in law and the fate of some of the others on the Catalpa.
As for the last moments of the play, they are played to quiet perfection.
The lighting and sound design by Ronan Fingleton worked well and the live music by Trevor Knight nicely fit the story.
The Irish Arts Center
553 West 51st Street
212-888-4444 or www.smarttix.com
Closes: Nov. 30, 2008
Running Time: Two Hours
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication, The Stage.