Poetic Justice

When his ship set off in 1875, the captain of the Catalpa had a pretty demanding schedule ahead of him: sail from Massachusetts to Australia, rescue six Irish rebels from a prison there, and do some whaling along the way. Donal O'Kelly's approach to telling the story of this voyage seems equally daunting: conveying the entire epic by himself. Well, not entirely by himself. He has Trevor Knight, the composer and performer of the show's score, offering occasional backup. But for the most part, it's just O'Kelly and his firm grasp of imagery and language, guiding us through the journey in his one-man play, Catalpa. In a largely engaging two hours, he spins the fantastic and the mundane into a kind of poetry that is rarely seen on stage.

History gives him some fabulous material. The play introduces us to figures like John Devoy, the Irish patriot exiled to America who hatched the plot; John Breslin, another Irishman who went first to Australia to set everything up; and George Anthony, the American captain of the Catalpa. Judging by their plan, these men were quite the optimists: rendezvous in Australia, grab the prisoners, throw them in the boat, and pray for wind.

O'Kelly frames the adventure as a movie his narrator is pitching to executives. This format allows for easy transitions. Instead of long descriptions (or pesky set changes), O'Kelly settles for declarations ("Backwater dock.") or camera directions ("cut to") when switching scenes.

Presenting the story as a movie pitch also lets O'Kelly insert self-aware asides. The commentary is used to humorous effect, like suggesting that one particular scene should have "sinister music to suit." It also allows him to package character descriptions as spoken stage directions: one man's laugh, for example, is rendered as "Ah-ha ha laugh laugh grin cough/grimace swallow phlegm and stroke mustache."

With so many people to introduce, these quick snapshots are what often suffice for character development. It seems O'Kelly settled on just enough features to distinguish between speakers during their conversations. Breslin, for example, is the sum of his raspy voice, giant build, and "walrus" mustache. O'Kelly's female impersonations are his weakest, as they tend to err on the side of creepy - even when the context doesn't call for it.

To be fair, the playwright and performer has a lot on his plate besides portraying characters. He is the set: crafting giant ships and rising waves out of the air. He is the special effects: echoing the sounds of a drill works or steamboat. And at one point, he's even a convincing bird.

The script's rhythm and onomatopoetic touches also propel the story and pull the audience into this world. The musicality of words is crucial to how O'Kelly draws each scene. His only prop, after all, is a sheet. Imagining his characters inside a stagecoach, for example, he incorporates intermittent "clippa-cloppa clippa-cloppa's" into the dialogue that give the scene a clipped pace and make it quite easy to picture. In fact, the cadence of almost every scene is well suited to its content.

In addition to the aural quality of his writing, O'Kelly brings poetry to the stage in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity. He has a Hemingway-like ability to select descriptions so precise that few words often do the job of many. His minimalist portrayal of the prisoners is perfectly succinct: "scorched Australian bush./Six pairs of leaden legs in busted boots."

In organizing the monologue into a series of camera shots, O'Kelly zooms in and out of particular scenes, carefully selecting the images he thinks best tell the story. When he chooses correctly, it is crisply evocative. While the audience is treated to many of these close-ups in the first act, the second half of the show tends to settle on more generic, wide shots. This is the case for the pivotal prison scene. Depicted in a rushed way, it seems almost like an afterthought to O'Kelly, ranked behind stunning scenes of flying birds and surfacing whales.

But these flaws should not overshadow what O'Kelly has accomplished with Catalpa. Brilliant lyricism, an adventurous history lesson, and enough imagination to get you to Australia and back are reason enough to hop aboard.

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