by Mary Notari · September 18, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #1: Mary Notari looks at Ronan Noone’s site specific play at Ryan's Daughter
This month, the upstairs of Ryan's Daughter, an Irish pub on E. 85th and 1st Ave., will be transformed into a fictional Martha's Vineyard restaurant, The Compass Rose, during the run of Ronan Noone's play of the same name. The show is an intimate, bare bones theatrical experience not to be missed in the 1st Irish theater festival’s lineup of Irish/American collaborations.
Affluent, anxious Jersey girl Tiffany (Olivia Horton) has returned to the restaurant where she used to work during her summers on the Vineyard. Working class Irish transplant, Donal (David Mitchell), is still behind the bar after all these years. This is the first time they've seen each other since they made an intimate, and ultimately disastrous, cross-country road trip together 10 years ago, the effects of which still haven't worn off. Horton and Mitchell flit seamlessly between present and past as Tiffany and Donal come to terms with the divergent paths their lives have taken and their unmistakable attraction, playing out key scenes from the ill-fated trip along the way.
The moments of symmetry when past and present meet for an instant are wonderfully directed and the space is made ingenious use of. Horton and Mitchell use nothing more than their bodies and a couple of chairs to evoke locales from the ferry at Woods Hole to a campground to a car on a long stretch of road. In a limited setting such as a bar, they convince the audience not only of their setting, but also of their humanity.
This is something Noone does extremely well: he makes his characters fully human - worthy of criticism and empathy. In doing so, personal experiences become tied to political realities without diminishing the importance or impact of either.
For example, there is a beautiful moment during the road trip when Tiffany’s elitism and self-righteousness force Donal to "come out" as undocumented - although he uses the term "illegal.”
Now, immigration is a very personal issue for me and many others. It is the essence of personal experience becoming a political issue. It is a main part of the Irish experience in America, which the 1st Irish theater festival celebrates, not to mention the American experience. So when Donal calls himself “illegal,” it feels like a stab in the heart. No person is illegal, only actions. When Donal comes out as undocumented, it requires Tiffany as well as the audience to examine how privilege affects personal relationships.
In order to explain what I mean by privilege, allow me to use the analogy of a fish in water: how do you explain water to a fish? She’s surrounded by it for her whole existence. She (the fish) has no reason to ever think about it - that is, until there suddenly isn’t any.
Similarly, how do you talk about immigration status to someone who has never had to think about theirs? The privilege of not having to worry about money; the privilege of not having to worry about being deported: these are things that are invisible to those who enjoy them. When Dolan reveals his fear of being deported, Tiffany the fish is suddenly very aware of the water. It is my favorite moment of the play.
The fact that Donal is undocumented is only one facet of his beautifully written character; it is not his defining characteristic. But I have to wonder: would a non-European character be allowed to not be defined by such a politically polarizing aspect of their lives? The fact that Noone makes Donal and Tiffany - polarizing because her blatant elitism - completely human and relatable is, in the end, subversive. Noone has done something fantastic: he has started a conversation in the midst of telling a wonderfully crafted story with beautifully human characters.
Tiffany may be a shallow Jersey girl with anxiety and hippie pretentions ("I'm a member of Amnesty.") but she has a self-possessed fearlessness that Donal comes to admire. Over the course of the trip, they begin to understand each other unlike anyone else. Their attraction is unavoidable and you can’t help but root for them. The fun comes, then, in the anticipation: we know this is going to end badly, but how?
The Compass Rose is a masterful, character driven piece of site-specific theater that rewards a critical eye. Come grab a pint, take a seat, and let the superbly crafted action revolve around you.