Interactive Comedy Captures Audience at Stockton Civic Theatre

Editor’s note – March 26 is the final performance so reserve your seats now. Information provided below.  

Aishling Keane, Michael Gadeke, Paul Ustach, Chris Snyder, Brent Dirksen. Photo: George Hong

Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone, but the arrival this month of “Flanagan’s Wake” at the Stockton Civic Theatre gave us a second shot of Irish festivity, another excuse to imbibe beverages appropriate to the occasion, and the opportunity to indulge in the close-knit merriment and mischief of interactive theatre. Talk about a pot of gold.

The play, which concludes its run this weekend, is a polished piece of theatrical fun and games, a wonderfully acted and consistently amusing comedy.

The fun commences as the friends, relations and critics of the late Mr. Flanagan gather to celebrate the man they knew (or thought they knew) and bid him farewell. Neither they nor the theatre audience can guess what post-mortem surprise awaits them.

The talented cast here brings it all alive with perfectly-pitched portrayals, facial expressions and lively banter that takes us to the fictional town of Grapplin, County Sligo. They also invite and encourage audience members to become participants in the comedy.  

Originally produced in March 1994 at Chicago’s Improv Institute, the wake finds a home at the SCT’s Pam Kitto Black Box Theatre whose intimacy enables playgoers to get closely acquainted with the personalities and shenanigans of the good folk of Grapplin. 

The townfolk are am appealingly diverse collection of personalities—from calm and collected Mayor O’Doul (Chris Snyder) and jaunty Brian Ballybunion (Brent Dirksen), who’s as lively as you might expect from a name like that, to Flanagan’s grief-stricken fiancée Fiona Finn (Jeanine Micheal Kiley) and the wonderfully wacky sorceress Kathleen Mooney (Aishling Keane), the undisputed madwoman of the town who casts a spell all her own.   

“The improvisation and interaction with the audience really provides a different acting experience,” Dirksen said. And, yes, he added, the cast had a great deal of fun during the rehearsal period. They’re still having it, so far as I could tell, during the performance.

Aishling Keane. Photo: George Hong

The mourners of the late Mr. Flanagan—whose coffin is on display beneath an Irish flag and a tongue-in-cheek portrait of the deceased—interact with the audience in ways that are surprising. They ask theatergoers questions to advance the plot. They tease and taunt one another. They also challenge one another once they discover that Flanagan left a potentially valuable piece of land to an unknown heir. One of their most endearing traits, I found, was a gift of gab that took them at times far from the matter at hand until brought up short by an exasperated listener who openly questioned their derailed train of thought.

It’s not your usual play, and (as they say in Ireland) thank the saints for that. There’s even a working bar tended by a lovely lass, just in case audience members feel the need to tame their thirst and join the celebrants of the wake with a bit of brew imported from the Emerald Isle. This playgoer did exactly that by procuring a Guinness (draught stout, for those of you unfamiliar with the beverage) whose authenticity was proclaimed in an elegant black-and-gold can with trademark Irish harp and the assurance of its having been “brewed in Dublin”. 

Good enough, said I, promptly lifting a glass to the memory of the late Mr. Flanagan whom I never knew but whom, thanks to the eloquence of his mates and adversaries, I got to know even better than a tell-all biography.

Director Joe Smith, who made the most of minimal staging and the best from his cast, described “Flanagan’s Wake” in modest terms—“A great getaway for a few hours.”

No exaggeration there. In fact, you might wish for the wake to last more than a few hours—or return as an annual presentation every March, after the blessed Patrick has received his saintly due. The wake certainly doesn’t lack crowd appeal or comic relief from the cares of our Covid-menaced and Putin-deranged world. Just be sure you don’t get Father Fitzgerald going on one of his rambling benedictions or incite the volatile Irish temper of the wheelchaired, stick-wielding Mother Flanagan (Carmen Musch, whose captivating facial expressions are worth the price of admission). 

“Everyone who comes to buy a ticket is part of the show,” Smith defined the secret of the play’s appeal to theatergoers, some of whom may be surprised to find themselves at home among the citizens of Grapplin. The plot has its twists and turns, but as a newcomer to the town, you needn’t worry what’s coming next. Whatever it is, you won’t be ready for it. 

My own part arrived when certain members of the audience were being invited to supply a word to perk the plot. I felt confident I could keep the comedy cooking by offering that wonderful one-word extravaganza of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (a song from the film version of the “Mary Poppins”). 

Chris Snyder, Aishling Keane, Michael Gadeke, Carmen Musch, Sierra Fraser, Jeanine Michael Kiley. Photo: George Hong

Of course, I could only remember half of that mind-boggling, tongue-challenging word, and so my opportunity for comic immortality was lost.

No, the Guinness had absolutely nothing to do with it.

And, in parting, did I mention that Sligo’s most illustrious writer may be called upon to recite a eulogy to the departed? If you’re expecting a literary luminary with the wiles of Jimmy Joyce or the wit of Wilde, guess again. As portrayed by actor Michael Gadeke, the writer’s name is Mickey Finn and he looks like he’s nervous about something—perhaps another outburst from Fiona or a curse from Kathleen or a grump from Mother Flanagan.

In this town, after all, one must choose one’s words carefully.

For further information contact Stockton Civic Theatre box office (Tuesday through Friday) at 2312 Rosemarie Lane, Stockton (209) 473-2424 or business office at (209) 473-2400.

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