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Theatre in Review: Camille O'Sullivan: Where Are We Now? (Irish Arts Center)

Photo: Nir Arieli

Camille O'Sullivan is quite the trickster. She takes the stage, looking rather distrait if not outright frazzled, a bundle of nerves fretting about her shoes and a missing credit card. Carrying on distractedly, rooting around the stage as if in search of something, she hardly seems prepared for the evening to follow. "It's all falling apart for your viewing pleasure, ladies and gentlemen," she announces, adding, "For those who haven't seen me before, good luck." It's hilarious, but are we witnessing an onstage meltdown?

Far from it. The minute she slips into Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," we are in the hands of a masterful artist. Her performance style -- whether hunched over, whispering true confessions into her mic, or letting loose with a Joplin-level belt -- is as eclectic as her song list. She both mocks and embraces the pseudo-Germanic fatalism of Lieber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?", a camp classic popularized by Peggy Lee. She channels her inner Bob Dylan for the existential shrug that is "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." She morphs into a bitter Weimar-era prophetess for "Crack of Doom" by the Tiger Lillies. Turning introspective, she offers a medley of Leonard Cohen's "You Want it Darker" and "Anthem," with a bit of "The Future" tossed in. And what better song for this fraught moment than David Bowie's "Where Are We Now?" All this plus a bit of "Send in the Clowns," "Silent Night" in (I think) Gaelic, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." As you can tell, O'Sullivan has excellent taste in songwriters.

The singer refers to "the twenty voices in my head," which helps to explain her wild mood swings as well as the Charleston steps or bunny hops that animate some numbers, not to mention the occasional fortification she takes from a glass of something or other. More to the point, however, she is a skilled, incisive actress whose preferred medium is song. (She has appeared as the Beggar Woman in a Dublin production of Sweeney Todd and has performed a solo version of Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece.) She clearly reveres the likes of Dylan, Bowie, Cohen, and Tom Waits (whose "Martha" gets an especially tender treatment) and she handles their materials with originality and care. When a number begins, her comically self-mocking persona is swapped out for an iron-clad authority. (Her deft handling, at the performance I attended, of a raucous audience member who had a bit too much of the grape or the grain provides additional evidence of her tremendous control.)

In everything, O'Sullivan is aided by a crack team of musicians led by Feargal Murray on piano and keyboard. And she has a delightfully off-kilter production design by Mac Smith, featuring a tipsy, helter-skelter collage of lamps floating over the stage. Also fine are Manuel Da Silva's lighting, John Murray's sound engineering, and the projection design of Lisa Renkel and Brian Pacelli. The latter are seen to powerful effect in the climatic number, Nick Cave's "The Ship Song," here transformed into a tribute to the generations of Irish immigrants who have given New York much of its distinctive character. O'Sullivan has a strong sense of occasion, and it is not lost on her that she is the opening act in Irish Arts Center's intimate, beautifully proportioned new theatre. (The projections behind "The Ship Song" include what I think is a time-lapse video of the new IAC being built.) If you're looking for a holiday entertainment both merry and melancholy, with a strongly contemporary edge, this is just the ticket. O'Sullivan, returning to the stage after lockdown, tells us, "You're the best thing I've seen in eighteen months." Lady, the feeling's mutual. --David Barbour

(10 December 2021)

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