Theater Review: “Cuchullain” at Keegan Theatre

Though its title references a mythological hero, this world premiere production fails to live up to its namesake.

By: Gwendolyn Purdom

When you name your one-man show after a mythological Irish hero, you’re setting the bar pretty high. Unfortunately for Cuchullain, now playing at the Keegan Theatre, the scattered action in Irish playwright Rosemary Jenkinson’s world premiere production never quite lives up to its lofty namesake. According to lore, the legendary Cuchullain (pronounced koo-KULL-in) single-handedly defended Ulster against the Queen’s armies in the Cattle Raid of Cooley at the tender age of 17. Here, another Irish teen takes on the obstacles in his world on his own, only instead of mythic warriors, the demons Aaron (Josh Sticklin) faces in modern Belfast include vengeful drug dealers, the welfare system, political adversaries, and overprotective mothers.

A one-man show is always a tough act to pull off, and while this material and structure fall short, it’s not for lack of effort on Sticklin’s part. The bright-eyed actor, who also teamed up with director Abigail Isaac and the Keegan artistic team in last year’s Basra Boy (also by Jenkinson), never seems to tire in his uninterrupted 80 minutes on stage. With a crown of wild, spiky locks and palpable energy to spare, Sticklin certainly looks the part of a foul-mouthed, morally questionable 19-year-old hoodlum wreaking havoc on the city streets. The actor embraces the role with fervor (though for a character that spends much of his time on stage snorting powder, swigging booze, and popping pills—or talking about it—Sticklin could stand to brush up on his intoxicated affect; his behavior reads hyper, not high).

Yet for all of Sticklin’s admirable efforts, it’s still difficult to feel invested in his character. Peppered with Irish slang, the play is hard enough to follow (audience members receive a much-needed glossary print-out upon entering the theater, but continually having to reference a cheat sheet in order to understand what’s being said onstage gets to be more than a little distracting), so when the storyline lacks a distinctive arc or focus, any impulse to connect with Aaron and his life feels diluted. The action loosely follows his lawless exploits—an uncomfortable sexual encounter with an underage girl at a house party, feigning insanity to collect disability payments from the Welfare Bureau—but the reasons for including each experience in the story and what we are meant to learn from them remain hazy. And it doesn’t help that the script constantly has Sticklin acting out voices and imitations of the other people in his life. Rather than adding depth and layers, it comes off as irritating and borderline schizophrenic.

Political undertones never quite come to fruition, either. References to the conflicts between the “Mickies” and the Loyalists (Aaron’s side) and even a scene that involves flag stealing don’t seem to lead anywhere other than providing a snapshot of the tense political climate in the city, which seems like a missed opportunity. Like issues raised throughout the rest of the production, not only does the topic lack resolution, it lacks the opportunity to even address the questions that might lead to it. Maybe that’s what they were going for, but as a theatergoer, the pattern was unsatisfying to say the least. For a production inspired in part by mythology, it’s hardly the stuff of legend.

Cuchullain is at the Church Street Theater through July 1. Running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($20 to $25) are available via Keegan Theatre’s website.