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A PERFORMANCE OF IMPORTANCE: "Rare gem" shines at CoMo's Berlin Theatre

"A Man of No Importance" a rich, many-layered love story
 
COLUMBIA, 3/3/13 (Review) -- Encore!
 
That's my message for the cast and crew of Talking Horse Productions' latest performance at Columbia's Berlin Theatre, A Man of No Importance.  It's the message Alfie Byrne, the musical's main character, yearns to hear and -- at the story's bittersweet conclusion -- finally heeds, to change his life forever.
 
A grassroots impresario in 1960s Dublin, Ireland, Alfie drives a bus for money and stages plays and musicals in a Catholic church social hall for love, all while struggling with a secret at the core of his identity.  

But there's no time for secrets and such -- there never is -- as Alfie mounts the next performance of a lifetime, with a charming cast of foils to his endearingly earnest straight man.
 
The Importance of Being Earnest is an Oscar Wilde play that comes up repeatedly during the show, while a famous portrait of the author and playwright (above) looms over the stage in shadow and light.  As Alfie, lead actor Ed Hanson's similarities to Wilde are among the ironies, double entendres, juxtapositions, comedies, and symbols that give the story a heart full of riches.
 
"A rare gem in the canon of musical theater," critics have written about A Man of No Importance. "One which combines the depth and drama of a play with the lyricism and comedy of a musical."

Reaching the end of middle age, Alfie lives unmarried with his spinster sister Lily in their Dublin flat, arguing about past mistakes and dwindling futures.
 
As personally engaging as he is emotionally immature, Alfie buries himself -- and his big secret -- in the big doings around his performances with the amateur but earnest St. Imelda's Players.    Though he can't manage his own happiness, he's become a master of making others happy, coaxing, cajoling, and flattering, promising his performers onward, onward toward the stage.
 
His latest performance is Wilde's risqué and risky Salome, to which Alfie rallies friends, strangers, church officials and his sister with the gusto of a man seeking the biggest diversion yet from an angst-ridden life.
 
"Bring me the head of John the Baptist" is Salome's famous line, as she -- the princess daughter of the demi-king Herod Antipas -- demands the Apostle's assassination to appease her wicked mother Herodias, who hated John. As a symbol of feminine seduction and shrewish schemes, Salome will perform the "immodest" Dance of the Seven Veils on her way to facilitating the famous disciple's murder.
 
The musical Salome casts John as no more than a head, a bloodied and battered prop on a silver platter.   Imagine performing that in a quaint and conservative Irish-Catholic church.   And that's the least of Alfie's worries.
 
Artfully cast, A Man of No Importance -- as Hanson and director Luke Tudball stage it -- tasks eight actors and actresses with mastering seventeen different parts, a challenging compromise to accommodate the Berlin's small stage.

As Alfie, Hanson offers the best performance this writer has seen him deliver.   A nervous wreck of conflicted emotions that both humanize and estrange him, Hanson is on fire with the passion and conviction that comes from telling a tale that hits so close to home.   Dublin is Columbia tonight, and Talking Horse Productions The St. Imelda's Players, Alfie's troupe that's about to run afoul of Father Kenny and the Church.
 
One of several actors whose features and gestures blend seamlessly with their characters, Dylan Bainter plays the good friar Kenny -- and in a clever casting coup his evil opposite, a devil in a red beret who literally brings Alfie's world crashing down around him.
 
My vote for Best Supporting Actor goes to Russ Boyer, particularly his boisterous portrayal of the scheming Carney, one of four roles he tackles. Boyer's duet of the song "Books" with Nora Dietzel's equally-scheming Lily is wonderful high comedy, due in part to the chemistry that develops between them.

The show's Best Actress -- Dietzel -- plays Lily with such heart -- and such a hearty Irish brogue -- it's hard to tell where acting begins and character ends. As Alfie's long-suffering sister, Dietzel steals the show multiple times, with her performances of The Burden of Life and later, Tell Me Why, about the revelation of Alfie's secret.
 
Meg Phillips brings comedic timing nearly as fine as her features to her characters, Mrs. Patrick and Mrs. Grace, while Jordan Isgriggs pulls off a brash and bawdy trio of songstresses and dancers -- Miss Crowe, Mrs. Curtain, and Kitty the barmaid -- that makes you remember why a musical is musical.   A live orchestra of strings and synthesizers keeps up with all the action in perfect time, giving life to nearly every emotion.  

At heart a story about unrequited love, A Man of No Importance comes full circle with the forbidden fruits enjoyed by Tudball, the show's director who also plays its romantic lead, Robbie; and Heather Bagnall as Adele -- and Salome in Alfie's play -- harboring a painful secret of her own. 
 
Like a reverse Snow White, Adele kisses Alfie, divulges her own secret, and leaves Salome behind.   Battered and bruised by the devil in the red beret, but kissed by a princess of truth, Alfie awakens from a deep slumber, taking the musical in a liberating new direction.
 
Life, like a play, is a collaboration.   Earnest Alfie the director, collaborating with casts and crews as long as anyone can remember.   And with his final performance at St. Imelda's church, Alfie Byrne the man, learning at last how to collaborate with -- and understand -- himself.
 
A Man of No Importance returns for its final performance tonight at 6 pm, Berlin Theatre , 220 N. 10th St. in downtown CoMo. 
 
 -- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
 
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