Michael West's Dublin by Lamplight would fascinate even without its commedia del'arte performance style and Kabuki/clown makeup. The convergence of the English king's first visit to Ireland with the opening of a visionary Irish National Theatre sounds like a Sean O'Casey or John Millington Synge riot-instigator.
Director Tom Reing's inspiring American première at Inis Nua Theatre Co. is plenty riotous. A cast of six plays more than 30 roles, narrating their action and speaking lines straight out to the audience in an exaggerated vaudeville style that's not only comic, but surprisingly affecting. They strike poses and pantomime with a dancerly combination of grace and specificity; every gesture is clear and important — not real, but true.
The production around them is likewise precise and moving. John Lionarons provides continuous piano accompaniment, wittily exaggerating the melodrama but also amplifying the play's more serious moments. Costume designer Maggie Baker evokes 1904 Dublin with quick-change pieces, and also designed the garish makeup, which reveals more than it hides.
Charlie DelMarcelle plays Willy, a starving playwright staging his mythological epic The Wooing of Emer in hope that it will restore Ireland's pride and launch his company. Leading lady Eva (Megan Bellwoar) wants to protest the king, however, and Willy's brother Frank (Jared Michael Delaney) has darker designs. Mike Dees plays a vain actor; Sarah Van Auken is star-struck Maggie; and Kevin Meehan plays her lovestruck suitor, Jimmy — but they're all also enmeshed in a dizzying range of other roles, switching costumes, walks and accents with ease. Never lost in the fuss and fun, though, is Dublin by Lamplight 's very contemporary portrait of a society on the verge of violence, yearning for freedom.
Through May 14, $20-$25, Inis Nua at Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St., 215-454-9776, inisnuatheatre.org.