The artistic director of the National Folk Theatre of Ireland won't say anything bad about Riverdance. "There's no point in our putting it down," John Sheehan said. "It's just that what we do is something much more authentic."
His 30-member company, Siamsa Tire (pronounced shame-sa teera, meaning "merriment" and "homeland"), will perform a savory menu of Irish myth, dance and song at Ford's Theatre tonight through Nov. 14. In a phone interview soon after he arrived in Washington last week, Sheehan seemed to feel that whatever fuels interest in Irish culture is just dandy.
"Riverdance is a much more homogeneous mixture of all the different dancing styles, and that's fine. It's very exciting and it's thrilling. What we do is something that's very specific, and it's traceable," he explained. "We're about preserving authentic dance and authentic styles of dancing. Irish dancing, by the way, is distinct from one county to another."
County Kerry in southwestern Ireland is where the National Folk Theatre, founded some 30 years ago, resides. The company plays to audiences both local and tourist in the town of Tralee (remember "Rose of Tralee"?). When not performing, its members rehearse, make up dances using old steps, teach children's classes and occasionally tour. "We create theater pieces," explained Sheehan. "We call it devising." They use ancient Celtic myth, Irish tunes, tales and folk dance.
The repertoire planned for Washington covers a vast array, including a battle of ancient Celtic gods; sorrows related to Irish emigration; trick-or-treat style masquerades on the day after Christmas, called the Day of the Wren; the "Children of Lir"--sometimes called "the second great sorrow of the Irish people"--a fairy tale about enduring tragedy; and "Seville Suite," which pairs male Irish dancers with female flamenco dancers in the 1992 number that's supposed to have been the inspiration for "Riverdance."
The American-born-and-bred Sheehan jumped the pond to lead the National Folk Theatre two years ago. A co-founder of the Opera Ensemble of New York, he'd been its artistic director for 11 years. Although of Irish descent, Sheehan said his enthusiasm for the new job "was probably more theatrical and literary-based than it was having to do with my ancestry." As a man of the theater, he'd always admired Irish playwrights and "the Irish ability to spin a story, to weave a tale." Storytelling is Sheehan's raison d'etre. In Vietnam he once calmed his buddies, holed up in a bunker during a Viet Cong attack, by acting out an entire Broadway show. "That was when I realized that even if I didn't make a living, it's what I do," he said.
Sheehan apparently had no difficulty recalibrating his storytelling tools from opera to folk and from Manhattan to Tralee (pop. around 25,000, he estimated). He reads the New York Times online and doesn't worry about Variety.
Indelible 'Ink' ActorFaran Tahir, currently fluttering hearts as the leading man in Studio Theatre's dreamy production of Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink," is "ethnic" in a way that Hollywood producers don't exactly understand. Born here but raised in his parents' homeland of Pakistan, he was educated at American universities and has a hint of an accent.
Trying out for commercials, TV shows or Hollywood films can be humiliating or infuriating; sometimes both. He was once asked to portray a convenience store clerk who was being robbed at gunpoint. He played it straight--no Asian stereotype. The producer-director, Tahir said, "proceeds to try to show me how to be 'Indian.' I told them, 'I know what you want me to do, but artistically, at this point in my career, I'm not capable of making that leap.' " Translation: Jump off a cliff, mister.
"That's why I stick with theater more," said Tahir in an interview last week. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, then Harvard's theater school and is the son and grandson of actors and playwrights--his parents were well known in Pakistani theater, and his father trained at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "I'll take Shakespeare or Chekhov or Strindberg any day," he said. He conceded that he runs into the same "ethnic" problems in theater, but far less frequently. He's found audiences accepting of nontraditional casting, "more willing to make those leaps."
Tahir lives in San Diego with his wife, a software designer, and two small children. His family spent about three weeks with him, but they're back home now, and he has to call at least twice a day to say good morning and good night--or he's in trouble.
Playwright Stoppard, who lives in France, plans to attend the final matinee at Studio on Dec. 5. According to Tahir, this is the first production of the play in which Stoppard hasn't had a hand. But he's not nervous about the visit.
Tahir said he's confident of his strong, romantic portrayal of the gentle widower, Nirad Das, an Indian artist who has a brief affair with a freethinking English poet in 1930 India. She chides him about his Anglophilia and helps to awaken his political consciousness (among other things).
"I'll stand by my interpretation of it," Tahir said, "because I think it would be interesting for [Stoppard] to watch, to see, when the playwright was not around, what we did with it."
* Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith will speak at a National Press Club luncheon Friday at 12:30. Call 202-662-7501.
* Actor and Stanislavski Theatre Studio Artistic Director Andrei Babel will speak tonight at 7:30 in the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Cecile Goldman Theater after the screening of a documentary about his grandfather. The Russian-Jewish writer Isaak Babel was a victim of Stalin's purges.
* Washington playwright Karen Zacarias's new play, "The Sins of Sor Juana," about a 17th-century Mexican woman writer, opens tomorrow at Theater of the First Amendment at George Mason University (703-993-8888). Zacarias also collaborated on a play about race relations in Washington's Mount Pleasant with students from her Young Playwrights' Theater, African Continuum Theatre's Jennifer Nelson and neighborhood residents. "The 13th Summer of William and Pilar" will play this weekend at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Call 202-234-7174 for tickets.
* The Theatre Conspiracy will have a special performance of "Perfect Women" Thursday at the D.C. Arts Center. Playwright Barbara B. Goldman will be on hand for a post-show chat to discuss the comedy, in which a teenage girl tells of growing up with big feet and an extraordinary attachment to her Barbie doll. Call 202-462-7833. The play runs through Nov. 20.
CAPTION: Members of Siamsa Tire are putting on a show of Irish dance, myth and song at Ford's Theatre through Nov. 14.
CAPTION: Isabel Keating and Faran Tahir in "Indian Ink," at Studio Theatre.