Holy Well, Sacred Flame

Local arts reviews

Holy Well, Sacred Flame: Spring Down Memory Lane

The Vortex, through Feb. 2

Many springs ago, in my native Kildare County, where the bogs lie flatter than a flounder's bed, in the capital town, Kildare itself, Jimmy the bus driver deposited me and the rest of Mr. Keane's fourth-grade class at a national heritage site. I beheld the stone well of St. Brigid as I ruminated over a bag of Tayto crisps. A wan voice echoed from the nearby glade. "Follow me, brothers, to the oak tree; Skans and Heinzy are having a scrap." I shed my crisp packet in a clearing where a circle of little people stood. There was truth in it: Heinzy was smacking the head off Skans.

To start this tribute to Brigid, Catholic saint and spring goddess, nine Vortex Repertory Company members circle a reconstruction of the Kildare well and chant incantations to the gas flame that tops it. Chief druid Bonnie Cullum simulates the pleasures of a Celtic feis (a feast, like a fiesta without the sunshine) and stimulates all the audience's senses. The symmetry of the actors' positions around the well and their movements fill the eyes with Celtic symbols -- circles, spirals, and flames. Warrior goddess Jo Beth Henderson polishes a claidheamh solais (the sword of light) to a shimmer. For the ears, a drum and a beadshaker provide percussion while the players recite sweet words and sing everything from come-all-ye's to opera. Holy Well is likely the best play you'll ever smell, thanks to a mist of incense and other scents. Actors offer their hands to touch and treat the audience's taste buds with honeyed apple slices. Even the Irish language gets an airing, though Mr. Keane might have withheld his gold sticker for pronunciation. (I never got one either.)

Storytelling may be the only Celtic sense that Cullum omits from her cauldron. Apart from the creation of the world, the crucifixion, and a few deaths, nothing happens. There is so much glee and solemnity about so little happening that at times it could be a religious ceremony. There is even a timely prayer for peace. Mick D'arcy breaks the ice as the god Dagda, who talks dirty to Danu (Content Love Knowles), mother of the Earth. They introduce us to their offspring, who ruled Ireland before the race of men and became the race of gods who still haunt the fairy hills, the Tuatha de Danaan (people of Danu).The words and music are written and delivered with a bardic flourish. D'arcy's gospel number "I Will Rock for Thee" gets the feet stamping. Impressive as it is, Edmund Pantuliano's "Pierced by the Sharp Edge of My Crown" is more ponderous and sinks.

Busiest of all Danu's descendants, Brigid embodies the season of spring and the elements of water and fire, and is goddess of inspiration, childbirth, healing, poetry, smithcraft, and the hearth. Lorella Loftus, Jo Beth Henderson, and Wendy Goodwin celebrate each patronage and incarnation with an act or a song. The strongest moment of drama comes when Dagda begs his children not to get involved with the mortals. Like a redheaded Prometheus, Brigid defies him, signaling the end of the time before time. Loftus renders St. Brigid as a sparky Frank McCourt character who almost ruins her family with generosity.

Irish mythology is littered with conflicts more dramatic than the material for Holy Well, Sacred Flame. Still, Cullum makes a unique rite from sincerity, sensuousness, and outlandish vision. It feels special and lifts the mood. For entertainment, however, it's not quite Skans vs. Heinzy.

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Holy Well, Sacred Flame, Bonnie Cullum, Jo Beth Henderson, Mick D'arcy, Content Love Knowles, Edmund Pantuliano, Lorella Loftus, Wendy Goodwin, Keith Sloan, Frank McCourt, I Will Rock for Thee, Pierced by the Sharp Edge of my Crown, County Kildare, Irish myth, Irish history, Tuatha de Danaan, St. Brigid, Celtic feis, Celtic myth

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