Robbie Collier Sublett in Finn
(© Paula Court)
Robbie Collier Sublett in Finn
(© Paula Court)
There's a treasure trove of source material surrounding the legend of Irish folk hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, also known as Finn McCool. Mabou Mines' new show Finn, receiving its world premiere at NYU's Skirball Center, taps some of this potential, but tends to favor a narrative mode that never quite brings the tale to vivid theatrical life.

A trio of storytellers (Jarlath Conroy, Brandon Goodman, and Dion Mucciacito) do the bulk of the narration, although they are soon joined by Finn himself (played by Robbie Collier Sublett). The play details several stories about Finn, mostly drawn from his youth, including how he gained wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge, his defeat of a fire-breathing Sidhe, and the way he became captain of the Fianna, an elite fighting unit with the credo, "Truth in our hearts, strength in our arms, what we say, we fulfill."

The text provides a metatheatrical commentary on the art of storytelling, with Conroy's character making numerous pronouncements about their need to stay true to the events in the tale. The way you tell a story, he says, "is how we remember what happened." Interestingly, there are actually numerous versions of the tales of Finn McCool that exist, so Mabou Mines' treatment of the story -- conceived by the show's director Sharon Fogarty and written by Jocelyn Clarke -- is in and of itself far from definitive.

Sublett has a lean, muscular body that fits the image of the youthful hero (despite a rather fake-looking wig), and he performs the leaps and cartwheels required of him with grace. But while the show charts Finn's hero's journey, and the lessons he learns along the way, most of the significant character development is told to us, rather than demonstrated in the actor's performance.

The production incorporates digital animation by Misha Films, projected onto Milan David's painted white set pieces. Some of the images are striking, such as the figure of a woman made up of flames, but others come across as perhaps unintentionally cheesy. However, Mary Louise Geiger's lighting is consistently well done.

Pre-recorded original music by Phil Cunningham and Manus Lunny underscores much of the action. The instrumentation includes bagpipes, flutes, and bodhran drums, resulting in a sound that is traditionally associated with Irish folk music. It's tastefully incorporated, but holds few surprises.

One unintended surprise came at the opening night performance when one of the actors' microhones had to be replaced at a climactic moment. The technical glitch brought the action to a screeching halt, and also made theatergoers keenly aware of how this saga was being relayed: as a kind of storybook that's being read aloud. The fact that the audience seemed more interested in this impromptu drama than they had been in anything that preceded it should not, however, be used as a complete indication of the production's overall effectiveness.