4 out of 4 stars
A far cry from the grand halls of Downton Abbey, where Olivier Award-winner Brendan Coyle’s beloved character Mr. Bates enchanted TV viewers across the world, Coyle (Downton Abbey, Mary Queen of Scotts, Paths to Freedom) delves into the mysteries and myth of vampires and our own humanity in Conor McPherson’s gripping St. Nicholas. The U.S. premiere directed by Simon Evans, which appears in the Goodman’s 350-seat flexible Owen Theatre, follows two acclaimed recent appearances at the Donmar Warehouse and the Dublin Theatre Festival.
When a jaded Dublin theater critic abandons his ordinary life in pursuit of a beautiful young actress, his desires lead him to strike an irreversible bargain with a band of modern-day vampires. In a disarrayed office with papered windows, Peter McKintosh’s set design is functional with water buckets, as well as visually reminiscent of a film noir. It serves as the perfect set for a spooky story about fears of the dark and supernatural dangerous creatures, as well as the grittiness surrounding power, humanity and desire.
Conor McPherson named “the finest playwright of his generation” (The New York Times) and author of Shining City, The Weir and The Seafarer is extremely provocative and engaging two-hour monologue challenges the audience’s perception. The staging of this production, which premiered over two decades ago, is hypnotic. The playwright’s candid language and structure paired with Coyle’s masterful craftsmanship creates an intimacy which comforts, yet slightly unrests. Coyle portrays subtle complexities regarding this mysterious, insightful, relatable, empathetic and abrasive character. The blocking in this space made everything feel natural and never faltered by any out of place movement. Coyle’s performance of McPherson’s work is so tangible that this thriller soars with Christopher Shutt’s sound design. Laughter from party goers in the distance and birds chirping faintly contrast thunderous cadences that build with suspense psychologically impacts the audience’s subconscious.
McPherson’s productions tend to hone-in on exposing humanity and immorality through raw uncensored language. St. Nicholas leans into the power of words versus physical power and how both can be twisted into a manipulative power. Coyle’s narrative character said to be of a larger set, uncouth and unhappy holds power with his words as a theater critic yet contrasts petty opinion against charm and wit with a darker reality sets this production into a psychological sphere.
Inspired by a dream the playwright had in being bitten by a vampire and given two painkillers, Coyle navigates the audience through a self-aware monologue touching on such theological, theoretical, philosophical and just plain banal topics. Stepping away from the linear narrative, McPherson questions the consciousness of being by juxtaposing nature vs. vampirism/magic, the cruelty in beauty and concluding with bold statements regarding art and goodness existing for nothing real but its own sake. Exploring the question between reality and abstract, the audience is led on a thought-provoking investigation.
Additionally, curiously titled perhaps McPherson named this production for the mystery shrouding the historical St. Nicholas. The earliest accounts of the real St. Nicholas’s life were written centuries after his death and contain many legendary elaborations. From beginning to end, McPherson’s St. Nicholas has some large abstract themes tackled head-on amid a tale treading the line between truth and fantasy.
While the set doesn’t change much except for the physical addition of candles. This tale takes us through late evening with the lights up and the set up told, while act two takes us into the heart of the tale. Flameless candles adorn the set with only a side spot now makes the stage darker and shadows deeper. Matt Daw’s lighting transforms the space subtly with each cue, as if we the audience were not being told, it is as if we were a part of this journey the entire time. The audience is suspended in space throughout this piece and that is what makes this production wonderfully tantalizing. Story telling at its best!
St. Nicholas runs for a limited engagement through January 27th in the Owen Theare at the Goodman Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit goodmantheatre.org or contact the box office at 312.443.3800
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!