3 min

Summerworks in the city

Scabies-infested mattresses & a white-trash Greek chorus in lawn chairs

Credit: Paula Wilson

Coming after the Toronto Fringe Festival, Summerworks theatre fest is often perceived as the little sister. But Summerworks has established itself as more than just a second chance to get your show seen.

In his third season as artistic producer, Franco Boni has been transforming the festival from a lotteried selection process to a juried one. Like a good wine, Boni feels that you should mount no show before its time. The 12th Summerworks opens Thu, Aug 1 with 44 shows. There are some diverse and esoteric offerings for the theatre buff and some names that, if you aren’t already familiar with them, you will be.

Irish actor and producer John O’Callaghan wants to be the North American ambassador for contemporary Irish playwrights. There’s a renaissance in Irish culture and drama not seen since the days of Joyce, Yeats, Synge and Beckett, and it’s a bracing and very hip voice. Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr are all names becoming familiar over here for their plays; O’Callaghan is bringing us a new name, Mark O’Rowe, and his third play, Howie The Rookie. Staged in London and New York to great acclaim and prizes, O’Callaghan has waited three years to obtain the rights for this Canadian premiere.

The play is described as “a bizarre feud over a scabies-infested mattress” between two Dublin lads with a score to settle. It sounds a bit like Trainspotting, but the Irish humour and language takes it to a level that O’Callaghan calls “heartwrenching comedy.”

Most of us associate Ireland with “the troubles” but Dublin-raised O’Callaghan wants the world to know that there is more than sectarian violence in his native land. Particularly in the Republic, modern Irish society is less preoccupied with religious differences than one would think, and Dublin has a diverse and cosmopolitan culture that includes a lively gay scene. With a laugh, O’Callaghan says that Ireland has always been “a pagan country with a thin layer of Catholicism.”

That’s reflected in Howie The Rookie with two character monologues that tear the lid off life in the streets of Dublin. O’Callaghan was attracted to the fierce writing style which he describes as “plot driven and poetic – a reflection of Irish society today, the bars, clubs and pubs.” There are only two characters onstage, with O’Callaghan playing a lothario constantly at odds with his pugnacious friend. The description and stories of offstage “mates” brings them to life in a very real way. O’Callaghan, gay himself, was particularly impressed with the character of Ollie, a gay man presented as just one of the boys and not your typical stereotype.

O’Callaghan has not suffered from any such stereotypes himself in the theatre world. With enough roguish Irish charm to frost anyone’s lucky charms, he seems poised to give Colin Farrell, the Hollywood hottie du jour, a run for his money in the Irish sweepstakes. Born and raised in Dublin, he went to Belfast to study computer science and fell in with a theatre group that brought Catholic and Protestant kids together; he had found his calling. He spent a year teaching at Wilfrid Laurier as part of his degree and encountered the Toronto theatre scene. He moved to Boston in 1995 to study at the New Theatre Conservatory.

Back in Toronto in ’97, O’Callaghan quickly made a name for himself in Caroline’s Farewell and Ladies Night as well as a fringe production of Conor McPherson’s Rum And Vodka, which he subsequently went on to perform in New York to great reviews and sold out houses off Broadway and an HBO taping of the play.

Since moving to New York, he played Abelove in the film adaption of We Were The Mulvaney’s (up for several Emmys this year) and you will hear his voice all over Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated Gangs Of New York. “They filmed in Italy and needed an Irishman to dub a lot of the dialogue,” says O’Callaghan. Having screen tested four times with Tom Cruise for a part in Vanilla Sky, and hobnobbing with celebrities in LA, O’Callaghan, like most Irishmen, can spin a very entertaining yarn.

He’s delighted to be back in Toronto for this play, finding the show business world here to be “much more about the work than the New York/LA drive for fame.” And he enlisted the talents of Chris Earle (Radio 30) as director. Earle says the play has “politically incorrect characters who are slightly misogynistic and bodily fluid obsessed” but that the language is “so pungent and immediate” that it has its own indelicate lyricism. “And it’s extremely funny.”

O’Callaghan is paired up with fellow Irish actor, Richard Harte, and the two will be tearing up the stage of the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St) for six performances starting Fri, Aug 2 at 10:30pm. You can expect fireworks and a smart Irish slap in the face from this production.

* Summerworks

$9 per show

Thu, Aug 1-11

Various venues