by Mary Notari · February 18, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #51 Mary Notari looks at Transport now playing at Irish Repertory Theatre The history behind the world premiere musical at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Transport, is an ugly one: back in the 1830s, the British penal colony in Australia needed women. So, the empire shipped off Irish women convicted of any petty or even imagined offense to correct the "gender imbalance" of the colony and reduce the Irish population as it was bore down upon by famine. Transport teeters on the edge of being heavy-handed and archetypal, but then again what musical doesn't. This singularly talented cast transports this rather conventional musical into the realm of a classic.
The book by Australian author Thomas Keneally (Schindler's List) gives us the tale of the Irish diaspora filtered through the journey of the women–and the men charged with their transport–in exile upon the prison ship The Whisper. Their emotional turmoil at being torn from their home is punctuated with horrors as well as wonders visited upon them by man and sea. Some of these moments could be the subject of an entire play themselves. Former freedom fighter Kate's failed mutiny stands out. Jessica Grové brings down the house with her rallying song "Raging Heart." Oddly, the audience responded to her entreaties to her fellow prisoners to join her in open rebellion with laughter. She is overshadowed later on by the unlikely love story between the Catholic prisoner Bride Riordan (Pearl Rhein) and the Protestant Navy surgeon Delamare (Edward Watts). It is a poetic plot twist: the two unite Ireland in surrogate, not through bloodshed and revolt, but with love.
The upbeat folk rock tunes of musician and activist Larry Kirwan's score were transcendent of space and time in the brightest moments of the play when the cast would come together in harmony as one. You will have some of the songs stuck in your head for days to come. That same musical theme would undermine some of the darker moments, however. One song that stuck out is "A Stranger In My Own Country" by the wrongly accused young Protestant mother, Polly. Emily Skeggs shines, bringing vulnerability to an unpopular character. One thing that was missing from the score was an Australian influence. This is a play as much about Australia as it is about Ireland and the ocean in between. A cursory musical nod towards the people that were kind of already in the "upside down" land would have done a lot to tie the old world to the new.
Everyone in Transport goes through a transformation in his or her journey across the ocean, including the duty-obsessed Captain Winton played masterfully by Mark Coffin. Other standouts in the cast were Sean Gormley as the tormented Father Manion, a beaten down former freedom fighter himself who advises Kate to accept their "season of submission." Props especially to Patrick Cummings in the supporting role of Hennessy, the young embittered Irish soldier in the British Army, for embodying what might be the most dramatic sea change in the play.
To tell a larger than life tale takes a larger than life medium. As admitted by director and set designer Tony Walton in the liner notes, it is an extremely difficult task to bring the thousands of stories, the enormity of the injustices, and the depth of spirit to bear on one stage in one show in under two hours. But this marvelous cast is more than up to the task, bringing a depth of humanity to each of their roles. This is truly an ensemble effort–and quite by design. Transport is about finding kinship when the world is tearing each of the characters apart. See this show and be transported with them.