As “Catalpa” starts, raconteur Donal O’Kelly frames the story he’s about to tell as a screenplay pitch. It sounds like it’s going badly, for which we may all give thanks — “Catalpa” would make a really lame, cliched movie. As a single performance, though, the writer-performer’s high-seas-adventure story is vast and generous, and his ability to contain all its double-dealing, danger and passion is astonishing. The Irish thesp isn’t terribly prepossessing, but his skills as a storyteller transform the small man behind the microphone into any number of heroes and villains.
Few actors can claim to have swashbuckled alone, but when O’Kelly’s story — a true one, by the way, or mostly true — really hits its stride, he’s dodging cannonballs and hoisting the mainsail with the best of them, all to the sound of Trevor Knight’s synthesizer and his own onomatopoeia.
One-man shows of this kind can be a little difficult to watch if they’re not executed perfectly; you feel as if you’ve walked in on the actor singing in the shower, and only one of you is embarrassed. The difference with O’Kelly has a lot to do with his specific set of technical skills. It’s not merely that he pitches his voice higher and softer when he plays a woman, or that he lets us laugh at him by verbally casting one character he plays as Angelina Jolie. It’s that when he tells us about chains falling slowly through the water onto the seabed, one hand turns unmistakably into a jellyfish.
O’Kelly is full of understated skills like these. Mime, some a cappella foley, even his rubber-faced realignment every time he takes on a new character must have been carefully considered and labored over. Ever see a clean-shaven man act like he has a moustache?
As such, it’s easy to pardon the story’s one major shortcoming: the historical narrative doesn’t always lend itself to thundering melodrama, and O’Kelly seems reluctant to play it any other way. So we’re never entirely sure whom we’re rooting for, when, for example, the agent of the noble Irish Republican Brotherhood sets himself against our hero.
The Catalpa itself was a whaling ship sent to Australia to rescue six transported Irish nationalists and ferry them safely to New York in 1876. For O’Kelly, it’s also the symbol of everything his main character — George Anthony, the ship’s captain — both loves and is trying to escape. His beautiful wife wants him to forget the sea; he loves whaling and wants to serve Ireland.
To set the scene, Knight pipes in music that sounds like a film score parody, frequently played with the synthesizer set on “Vangelis.” It’s difficult to tell if this is meant to be funny or simply the product of one too many viewings of “Chariots of Fire,” but it’s a relief when Knight’s keyboard recedes a little and he and O’Kelly start to interact.
O’Kelly’s script has a poetic quality that sneaks up on you: Few screenplays would contain the direction “Pull back and rise to show faintly lit Catalpa carving through the dark horses of the night Atlantic,” but they’d probably make good reading. Then there are the sound effects — the noise of the sailor’s shoes picking their way through a whale’s spermaceti (seriously) are channeled by O’Kelly’s whispered words: “Their feet seem to speak from the suction of the stuff.”
All in all, it’s an improbably beautiful show, especially considering O’Kelly has only a white sheet hanging from a pipe and Ronan Fingleton’s lights to paint a picture. The really gorgeous visuals of “Catalpa” take place in our heads, with the singing, declaiming, gesticulating O’Kelly the touchstone.