One of the most beloved Irish traditions is storytelling through song, and “Silver Stars,” part of the Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival, fiercely embraces this custom. Yet the piece exposes a lesser-known Celtic trait as well — denial. When confronted with something painfully unpleasant, simply pretend it doesn’t exist and maybe it will go away.
And nothing could be more unpleasant in Irish eyes than homosexuality. For in a country overrun by Catholics who insist on adding a Christian name confirming their faith, committing this especially nasty sin puts you on the fast track to Hell. As the solemn “Silver Stars” poignantly conveys, for many men, self-denial of true sexuality can wreak some serious, lasting damage.
But this earnest production might take itself a bit too seriously for its own good.
Aging Irish men croon woeful coming-out tales, breaking the silence
Imported straight from Ireland (and touted as the “breakout hit” of the 2009 Dublin Theater Festival), the work was written by Sean Millar, who pieced together verbatim interviews from eight men of a certain age who have grappled with their gayness and paid the price. Remember, this is eons before gay.com.
The modest, hour-long “song-cycle” features an ensemble of ten men deep into middle age accompanied by three cellos, a keyboard, and the occasional percussion instrument. A white screen is suspended behind them, displaying a range of images to augment the choppy monologues.
On the whole, the memory fragments are varied and quirky enough to be compelling. Stephen finds a wondrous world after a lifetime of shame — he celebrates Pope Paul’s death by dancing on a gay nude beach, then snags a front row seat at the actual funeral service near Jackie O. Richard is wracked with grief over the death of a longtime companion. Robert (Rygor, the late activist) recounts his stinging ACT-UP speech in Washington, DC, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Brendan (Fay, also an activist) recalls marching up Fifth Avenue in the 1991 St. Patrick’s Day Parade, defying the jeers of angry onlookers. To sublimate his urges, John enlists in the army, becomes a POW, and practically starves to death. It’s almost as harmful as the self-imposed emotional starvation he suffers by denying his authentic self.
“Silver Stars” strives to find universal meaning in the particulars. Yet for all its respect for tradition, the piece chooses to turn its back on some basic musical theater conventions, which I found by turns captivating and frustrating.
For starters, rather than trained professionals, they cast amateurs from a community chorus in Dublin. And a middling one at that. What the performers lack in vocal chops they make up for in conviction and heart. I suppose using vulnerable, ordinary Josephs underscores the immediacy and intimacy of the piece, but it comes at the expense of genuine entertainment.
What’s even more perplexing, these average gay Irish men are recounting stories of other gay Irish men. I’d rather see trained actors convey these stories. Or non-actors recount their own tales.
Eschewing a single director, the piece is directed by a group called Brokentalkers, led by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. While I appreciate the collaborative spirit that draws from diverse sources, there is no clear vision and the staging is awkward. Direction by committee is never a good idea.
Perhaps my biggest qualm is that — as “Silver Stars” meditates on love, ignorance, faith, shame, repression, and authenticity — it’s overly obsessed with pain. Sure, we expect wistful. Yet, despite one segment called “There is no greater joy,” the musical interludes are fraught with dirge-like chants and zombie-chorus wailings. The fleeting moments of haunting beauty become mired in grief. The lightest notes are delivered by the cellos. Where are the jovial, uplifting ditties about the joys of being — you know — gay?
“Silver Stars” may be the most maudlin hour you’ll spend at the theater this winter. For some, it may also prove to be the most weirdly evocative.
Under The Radar Festival
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. below Cooper Sq.
Jan. 13 at 9:30 p.m.; Jan. 14 at 7 p.m.
Jan. 15 at 7 p.m.; Jan. 16 at 3:30 p.m.