Donal O'Kelly in Catalpa
(© Irish Arts Center)
Donal O'Kelly in Catalpa
(© Irish Arts Center)
As playwright. performer and director of Catalpa, the solo play currently performing at Irish Arts Center, Donal O'Kelly seems to rejoice in the musicality of spoken words and in their capacity to paint visual pictures. This infectious love of language fills the two-hour show with precisely chosen words that paint visual pictures for the audience. Unfortunately O'Kelly has far more success rendering these little pictures than with painting the big one: the story gets away from him.

The tale he tells, derived from true events, certainly has the potential to be powerfully told. The heroic adventure of the whaling ship Catalpa, which sailed from Massachusetts in 1875 on a daring mission to free six Irishman from an Australian penal colony, is a seafaring saga that is rife with heroic perseverance and political intrigue. O'Kelly chooses to frame the story as a screenwriter's pitch to movie executives, a conceit that frees him to tell the story in baldly visual terms but which limits his capacity to inhabit its characters more than fleetingly.

Fixed on stage in front of a microphone, O'Kelly assumes a range of characters -- among them the sea captain George Anthony and the wife he left behind in wait who could not be told the true objective of the voyage -- but not one of them can be said to spring to life with any dimension. O'Kelly's portrayals amount to mimicking how they would look if we were seeing them in a big screen version of the story, which proves not to be a particularly enlightening approach.

The show's not inconsiderable, mitigating pleasure is what O'Kelly accomplishes in one isolated moment after another, putting his words to purposeful use to conjure up scene-setting filmic images. When he holds the "sh" sound in the word "ocean" and repeats it rhythmically, the word becomes onomatopoeia and paints an instant, vivid picture of crashing waves. He need only enunciate the name of The Morse Twist Drill Works with staccato, machine-like precision to bring the place to dreary life in our imagination. Many moments like these make the show an often sensual soundscape of spoken language (which is further enhanced by musical underscoring composed and performed live by Trevor Knight); but unfortunately Catalpa is seldom more than an aural experience.