In its 40 years of avant-garde theater work, it has always seemed as if Mabou Mines could do no wrong. Except, maybe, once in a while — like now, with “Finn,” an earthbound version of the Celtic legend of Finn McCool that hardly seems worth the elaborate digital technology lavished on it. With only four live performers to enact the mythic adventures of this great warrior, the production is severely underpopulated, its action limited to athletic tumbling and spear-chucking. And while the heightened language honors the oral traditions of Celtic storytelling, the imagery created via digital animation is surprisingly bland.
Narrative chores are handled on a high professional level by Jarlath Conroy, all grey and grizzled and enveloped in a patchwork cloak that appears to have been constructed from the hides of creatures that are not yet dead. As principal Storyteller, Conroy strikes stagy poses and allows his well-trained voice to draw us into the adventures of Finn Mac Cumhail, the mythic hero who united Ireland under the protection of a brave band of Celtic warriors.
As conceived by helmer Sharon Fogarty and penned by Jocelyn Clarke, this version of the ancient legend introduces us to Finn as a raw youth, earnestly played by Robbie Collier Sublett with bare chest and a head full of dense blond curls. As tradition would have it in this coming-of-age saga, this beautiful, rash boy will be unable to avenge his father’s death and become the leader of his warrior clan until he achieves wisdom through a series of grueling physical and mental trials.
While Brandon Goodman and Dion Mucciacito are credited as secondary Storytellers, it falls on them to enact all the other characters in the story, from chesty warriors from enemy clans to the talking wolves that roam the wild woods where all the action is. Although they perform their athletic chores energetically, fighting is basically fighting — except, of course, in the eyes of pubescent boys, to whom this tale seems pitched.
The message of “Finn,” should these boys care to heed it, seems to be that the true warrior must prove himself to be a well-rounded human being before he can be a leader of men. In the noble language of the piece, that directs the prospective hero into becoming a custodian of Ireland’s poetic legacy — a sweet conceit — and fighting honorably alongside warriors “with truth in our hearts and strength in our arms.”
But it’s not the content, so much as the aesthetics of the show that lets down the company’s own avant-garde legacy. For all the costly-looking hi-tech digital animations projected on moving flats and the giant screen behind them, the muddy woodland imagery is less than imaginative. However abstract, there are only so many ways to suggest trees and their verdant properties. If we can’t get lost in the magic of these woods, then the tale is hardly worth the telling.