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Sunday, 21 August 2011 12:44

The Black Mirror Theatre Company reflects “through a glass, darkly”

Written by Nancy Crouse
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What a contest:QE I vs Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley) in The Conversation, a new play by St. Louis native Dennis Corcoran at The Focal Point in Maplewood. You don’t  have to be English or Irish to know that an ancient, deeply rooted animosity exists between England and Ireland over sovereignty and religion. 

Not even the recent visit by QE II could reconcile ages of conflict, but I certainly did not know that over 400 years ago the mighty Queen Elizabeth I ever granted a private audience to her Irish enemy, the formidable Gaelic chieftain and sea captain Grace O’Malley. Though the meeting and its outcome are documented, their conversation is not. That dialogue prospective fired playwright Corcoran’s imagination and fueled the creation of this script. 

Thanks to a very active and supportive theatre community, especially surrounding the St. Louis Community College at Meramec, Corcoran’s script evolved from 10 minutes to one act to this full-length production in just 20 months. Having his one-act incarnation become a semifinalist at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival encouraged Corcoran to expand it to its current length and the Black Mirror Theatre Company to launch its existence with this production.  It’s not easy for a new company to mount a new script, especially one requiring historical context, accents, accouterments and personas with built-in expectations, all in a converted theatre space.    

To set the mood at The Focal Point, live music and hand crafted brass rubbings surround the audience assembling before the exposed set, designed by Megan E. King, who also designed the lighting with few instruments in limited locations. The size of the stage required simplicity: three tastefully painted, gilded panels backed an unpretentious table, a couple of chairs and a chest, all used to represent Greenwich Castle, England, 1593. The compact space afforded little room to costumer Sharon Corcoran for lavish Elizabethan court dress or to director Michelle Rebollo to maneuver her cast of three performers in roles larger than life, the spatial limitations perhaps stunting their characterizations, pace and intensity. 

The uncharacteristically drably dressed Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth’s aged chief advisor played with youthful aplomb by Brian J. Rolf, delivered his first speeches completely in shadows, maybe because he was a bit of a shady character, but I would have preferred to see him. So many pregnant pauses occurred between him and Elizabeth and later between Elizabeth and Grace that no pause was effective but implied line insecurity throughout the evening.

Initially, Gwynneth Rausch’s appearance was stunning enough as Elizabeth I with her appropriately painted and powdered face, fine Act I gown, and red hair (though the wig did not suit the requisite lines about her letting it down for a thwarted theatre outing with Grace).  Certainly her accent as a Brit was most appropriate; however, I did not believe Elizabeth I would be so hesitant in her speech or insipid in her manner. I never saw the requisite presence, passion or verve that I expected to see in a monarch that I have always admired as one of the greatest women and rulers of all time.  What a great and greatly difficult role!

Equally great and difficult was the role of Grace O’Malley, played with sincerity and a beautiful Irish accent by the youthful Katie Robinson, but she, too, did not ring true enough, being too young for a grandmother and too plaintive and often soft spoken for a fearless legendary warrior. Since neither woman exuded commanding audacity, I’m not sure how or when they won the other’s respect, forging an unlikely friendship: their supposed chemistry worked better in the script than on the stage. 

Corcoran’s “colorful words” of The Conversation were often thought provoking and entertaining as he has the women almost escape incognito to the theatre, find common ground in the subjugation of their gender to leadership and their recognition of the shackles their position, responsibilities and reputations impose.  

The number who stayed for the post-show talk back must have agreed for the production elicited its own stimulating conversation initiated by Dr. Eamonn Wall, Professor of Irish Studies at UMSL following the opening performance.  The inaugural production of the Black Mirror Theatre Company provided a shadowy reflection of the historical conversation when art and artifice went face to face.


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