An ad appearing in Chicago's Irish-American News' February edition announced the Feb. 22 opening of Donal O'Kelly's one-man play "Catalpa," presented by the Chicago's Irish Repertory Theatre. The ad noted that O'Kelly's piece narrates "the true tale of an American whaling ship hijacked and forced to rescue a group of Irish."
That note is misleading -- neither the good ship Catalpa nor playwright/ actor /director/ film star O'Kelly is forced into the rescue or presenting that skewed bit of history. O'Kelly and composer Trevor Knight present the mission of the Catalpa with attention to historical detail.
John Devoy, New York's exiled Irish Republican Brotherhood leader, paid for the services of the Catalpa, the Bedford, Mass.-based whaling ship, along with that of ship's captain George Anthony, crew, and other voyage expenses, to bring about the escape of the Fremantle Six -- Irishmen in the British army found to have taken the oath of the IRB. Accused of disloyalty to the Crown, they were sentenced to life in penal servitude in Her Majesty's penal colony of Western Australia.
I attended the opening night performance at Columbia College's Getz Theatre. From the opening chords of Knight's musical adaptation to the final sounds of O'Kelly's child persona, the packed house was made the willing participant of the sea saga about infidelity, patriotism, courage, skill, desperation, and hope.
O'Kelly's premise here is of a man coming out of a failed movie pitch to Hollywood producers. This fictional pitcher tries one more time and strikes one across the letters of O'Kelly's audience. Applying sound and sense from a palette thick with experience, O'Kelly and Knight treat their audience with the respect and the audio-caresses the Hollywood players missed out on.
Verbally visualizing every shot, sound and mood, O'Kelly's would-be movie maker takes the audience on a sound-voyage and verbal cruise through the adventures and psychological peculiarities of every character in 'the movie' to be.
Yankee ship-owners, West Indian harpoon-men, Irish icons, French chambermaids, A Sea Bird, Australian spies, Fenian prisoners, an angry wife and the angrier ghost of the Captain's mother-in-law pour from the soul and talents of O'Kelly. One of the great lines of dialogue comes from the Yankee ship owner, who agrees to the Catalpa's place in the Fenian plot -- for a handsome price, of course, stating as his reason, '"We may at some time run out of whales to hunt, but we will never run out of Irish Americans!"
Along with Knight and O'Kelly, Sorcha Fox did a great job of balancing the lighting to meet the many moods created by the sound and sense of O'Kelly's presentation of Catalpa.
I had the pleasure to speak with O'Kelly, a familiar face in the Celtic Tiger's cinema roll-call, after the thrilling two hours vanished like the Australian sea storms -- howling, blasting, and surging – and found him calm, assured and trusting.
We met in the dark and chilly backstage of the Getz Theatre.
Pat Hickey: I am with the author and performer of "Catalpa," Mr. Donal O'Kelly. We are at the Columbia College Theatre (Getz Theatre), and you put on a brilliant performance. It's a remarkable piece as it's a presentation to some movie producers 'gone south.' Would you talk about that a little bit?
Donal O'Kelly: Well, the whole idea is of a man writing a screenplay who can never really pitch the idea to producers -- he always makes a mess of it. So, my idea of "Catalpa" is to present the idea to the audience as this guy sees it in his mind. We can theatrically and with live music recreate what the man wants to get across that a film might not allow, and the audience is invited in to experience what this man wants to get across.
PH: The language of this play is remarkable -- its sights and sounds and cadences. It's remarkably rhythmic.
DOK: It's sort of our (performer and audience) little short-hand, so that -- unwittingly -- the audience participates, they get the images very vividly in their minds. Its economic use of language -- at least in theory (laughs).
PH: Well, it works. This magnificent story (was) presented in such an inviting manner. You had a packed house enthralled.
DOK: We try not to draw a certain amount of attention to the mechanics of the language so much as to visualize through the sounds. (We do that) rather than say "Oh, isn't that such wonderful writing" -- as a distraction to them -- try to be too clever. So what the audience gets is the features in their heads.
PH: Trevor's work picked up on your cadences and language -- particularly in the whale's care of its child and how it merged with George Anthony's thoughts of home.
DOK: Well, yeah, George has a bit of mother fixation or, should I say, the ghost of a mother-in-law fixation. Throughout the play, George is haunted by the ghost of his mother-in-law for breaking his vow never to go to sea again -- it was a death-bed promise.
PH: You kept the historical background intact, without drumming away at it too much. Here in Chicago the IRB was a great influence.
DOK: Quite right, for the sake of theatrics we did not include John Devoy's rival John Goff of Chicago. As a theatre piece, we had to leave Chicago's part out of it.
PH: Well you must be exhausted, and I'll get out of your hair. Let me thank you for bringing this play to Chicago.
DOK: On the contrary, it was through the support of Irish Repertory Theatre and their sponsoring agencies. I will say this, that (the folks present) were an intelligent and responsive audience. They got the punch lines to the jokes set early on in the play. It was a great pleasure … .
- The Catalpa Rescue, from Answers.com
- Chicago's Irish Reportory
- The Irish Freedom Struggle, from WGT's Archives
- Pat Hickey's "With Both Hands" Blog
- The Catalpa Rescue, from IrishAustralia.com
- Buy "Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom" by Terry Golway
- The Voyage of the Catalpa by Peter F. Stevens