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Noticing St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas gets scooped up by A.R.T. logo
From St. Nicholas
"In this business, there are so many negatives, so many seemingly insurmountable problems, and out of the blue comes this marvelous moment." Carmel O'Reilly, artistic director of Boston's Súgán Theater is sipping tea in her Cambridge home, and is uncharacteristically still. Over the past eight years, she has dedicated herself to bringing new Irish plays to Boston. O'Reilly has directed and produced the majority of the works at Súgán, including the critically acclaimed St. Nicholas, by Conor McPherson, which is being remounted at the American Repertory Theatre this month as part of their New Stages Program.

St. Nicholas

, a one-man show, is the story of a jaded Dublin theater critic, who finds himself besotted by a young actress and walks away from his ordinary life into a series of bizarre events. It is a macabre, funny story of obsession, seduction, entrapment, and blood. The Súgán production received an avalanche of high praise--as did Richard McElvain, who stars--when it ran last fall at the Boston Center for the Arts. "A small miracle of a play," proclaimed Bay Windows. "The most rewarding theatrical experience in the area!" added Ed Siegal, lead critic at The Boston Globe.

Robert Orchard, managing director of the American Repertory Theatre, agrees. "A number of people on the staff here, including Robert Brustein, saw the show and had high regard for it. It was well received, but constrained by a limited run. We thought it was a good idea to provide an opportunity for further performances," explains Orchard. "There was an extraordinary interplay between the audience and the performer that you rarely see. I hope we can capture the same exchange."

Moving the play from the original 90-seat house at the BCA Black Box to the more spacious 300-seat Hasty Pudding presents a challenge to the production team. Retaining the intimacy is O'Reilly's biggest concern. "In collaboration with Michael Griggs, our set designer, we've affected a solution. We are actually removing seats so that Richard can move into the audience. We'll build the set and continue it down into the house. The piece moves freely between theater stories and dramatic monologues. In this way, he can literally move between intimacy and theatricality."
From St. Nicholas
The play itself presented other challenges as well, and O'Reilly confides that she had doubts about producing it. "McPherson is this wonderful new voice out of Ireland, and I thought this would be marvelous to do, but I was fearful because finding the right actor could be a problem. The piece needs a very strong and complex actor who can operate on many levels. You also need to find a person with whom you feel compatibility. I saw a number of good people, but I wasn't ready to commit until Richard came along. That's the highest compliment I can pay him."

McElvain received the I.R.N.E (Independent Reviewers of New England) Award for Best Solo Performance for his turn in St. Nicholas, yet initially had his doubts. "I was so terrified by the play," he admits. "I was just trying to keep it alive moment to moment." But then The Phoenix wrote, "I can't imagine a better performance," and The Boston Globe gushed, "McElvain has the audience hanging, not just on his every word, but on his every nuance and gesture."

A 25-year veteran of the Boston theater scene, McElvain is practically a Boston institution, with a talent for comedy that belies his ability to evoke deep sadness. In St. Nicholas, his portrayal of a bitter, middle-aged theater critic seems to have struck a nerve. "Guys would stop me on the street and talk about how taken they were with it. The way McPherson captures self-doubt is really spot-on. He's only 24 years old, but he seems to have found a conduit into the minds of these men who have lived most of their lives, and now have grave doubts about it."

Conor McPherson is something of a wunderkind. One of Ireland's most exciting new playwrights, he has already garnered a handful of awards. In 1998, McPherson had three plays running simultaneously in New York, including The Weir on Broadway. St. Nicholas was commissioned by The Bush Theater in London, where it was first performed. His plays have caught the fancy of many local theaters, and The New Repertory Theater will be presenting St. Nicholas as part of their season next year.

Both Orchard and O'Reilly seem enthusiastic about the possibilities that the Súgán-A.R.T. cross-pollination offers. "It opens you up to a new audience--it charges the arteries of the theater community," O'Reilly notes. "There is a danger in being labeled an 'ethnic company.' You remain in a niche and you don't grow, and neither does your audience. We're not about that; we're about theater."

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