A Midsummer Night’s Riot

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Watching the world premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Riot is like watching theatrical lighting strike. For the third time. In the exact same place (the Keegan Theater). With the exact same writer (Rosemary Jenkinson) and director (Abigail Isaac). And the same amazing actor, Josh Sticklin, who in a virtuoso solo performance commands the stage with such singular verve and artistry that it must be seen to be believed.

I’ve witnessed this highly charged convergence of creative force fields twice before.

In 2011 the Keegan presented the world premiere of a one-act, one-person play set in Belfast called Basra Boy. It starred Sticklin, was written in Belfast dialect by the Northern Irish playwright Jenkinson, and was directed by Isaac. Sticklin played Speedy, a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk, plus a cast of supporting characters who came equally and instantly alive before our eyes by sheer dint of Sticklin’s quicksilver talent. I was knocked out.

Following that production’s success, Keegan presented in 2013 another world premiere of another one-person play set in Belfast, Cuchullain, written in Belfast dialect by the same author, directed once more by Isaac, and starring again Sticklin—as a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk who is this time named Aaron.

In A Midsummer Night’s Riot Sticklin plays Ross, a witty, randy Belfast teenager who has a dream: to be a famous pro golfer with a gorgeous girlfriend. But he is pitched into nightly summertime street riots between Protestant and Catholic youth, and he’s so strapped for cash he cannot afford golf clubs.

As in Basra Boy and Cuchullian, Sticklin bounds about the stage, peoples it with a cast of sharply drawn characters through uncanny insta-impersonation (male and female, young and old), and captivates with a torrent of  waggish jokes and lickety-split narration of a transfixing tragicomic story.

When I first saw Sticklin’s performance in a one-person work by Jenkinson, I could have sworn that he, like the writer, is a Belfast native. He’s not, but onstage he still sure seems so. In A Midsummer Night’s Riot, the part and the player are a perfect fit.

Jenkinson’s script is a remarkable piece of writing. Composed as one long prose-poem monologue (with nary a stage direction), it’s loaded with local  slang—some of which is explained in a one-page glossary handed out with the program. (And some of it offers a bemusing glimpse into the mind and appetites of a teenage male—e.g, buckfast means booze and stridener means hard-on.) But as rich as are the idioms and the authenticity of dialect, one’s ear quickly adjusts to catch the gist, the way one listens to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English spoken aloud. In fact the aptness of that comparison extends further, because Jenkinson’s use of language is mind-blowing. The text that Sticklin animates is utterly alive with poetic diction. For anyone with a taste for Bard-ish word play, the world of A Midsummer Night’s Riot is like entering a shop full of ear candy.

If you missed Basra Boy, if you missed Cuchullain, don’t let this one pass you by. It’s lightning in a bottle—as electrifying as solo theater gets.

Runtime: One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Riot plays through June 5, 2014 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 892-0202, or purchase them online.