Theatre Review: ‘Minding Frankie’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kristen Tripp Kelly and Christian Brandjes star in “Minding Frankie” at Irish Classical Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski

We should all live in the world Maeve Binchy created. Gentle moments are soft as a whisper. Strong emotions are passions with purpose. Hate is usually couched in fear, and while it’s uncomfortable, it’s not vitriolic. And the good guy always wins.

. . .a sentimental and sweet story.

“Minding Frankie” was one of Binchy’s last novels (published two years before her death) and is the only one adapted for the stage, nicely done by Shay Linehan. Irish Classical Theatre’s production is the North American premiere.

Linehan did a fine job scaling back the abundant characters of the novel to this clean and taut production for two actors in multiple tiny roles.

Director Chris Kelly struck gold with his two actors of choice. Christian Brandjes’ dominant role is Noel, the father and minder of infant Frankie, the poor dear, who is born out of wedlock to a terminally ill woman who professes that Noel is the biological dad.

Kristen Tripp Kelley is Frankie’s mom Stella, but for most of show she is Moira, the social worker who is not convinced that Noel, with his love of the drink, is father material. And so it goes.

Turns out Noel can manage just fine, most of the time, with a little help from his extended family of village folk, who appear to the audience only in one-sided dialogue..

Both Brandjes and Kelly shine in their primary roles and their multiple character appearances, too. Kelley’s shift from the disdainful social worker Moira from dying mama Stella is the farthest stretch of all, and she manages this beautifully. Brandjes’ morph from drunk Noel to waiter is charming and deft. Both actors use their voices and body language well, with carefully placed steps and nuances, aided by randomly small props and pieces. Whoever thought a simple plastic rain bonnet was all you needed to change personalities, or a tilt to your wrist can suggest a serving tray? A truly skilled actor can make you see something new in every suggestion.

Skillful acting, versatile set design, simple costumes,  and minimalist props powerfully suggest people, places, and objects here, supporting a sentimental and sweet story. Designer Paul Bostaph’s set is a series of oversized alphabet blocks that shift into a bed, a changing table, and a bar, besides holding teaser props to fold our imaginations into the space and story. A vintage receiver sans cord is the non-cellular phone. Hands curved around air just so suggest holding the wriggly curves of an infant.  I like that this production makes you work along with the actors to make the story very real in your mind’s eye. It’s this subtly vivid storytelling that draws you in and makes you very glad you are there.

Running time is just over two hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“Minding Frankie” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

 

First Look: ‘Minding Frankie’ at Irish Classical Theatre

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Kristen Tripp Kelly and Christian Brandjes star in “Minding Frankie” at Irish Classical Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

Maeve Binchy is one Ireland’s most beloved modern novelists. One of her early novels, “Circle of Friends”, was adapted for the silver screen (starring Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell) in 1995.  One of her last novels, “Minding Frankie,” (published in 2010, four years before her death) was adapted for the stage, and it will make its US premiere at the Irish Classical Theatre when it opens there on November 3.

Binchy’s novels are renowned for their warmth and charm, with a touch of well-placed wisdom woven into classic and gentle storytelling. Her books read like an Aran knit sweater: cozy, comfortable, maybe a little bit scratchy at times, but you always feel better about wrapping yourself in Binchy’s carefully written world.

For director Chris Kelly, he has the enviable task of crafting the work of playwright Shay Linehan with two venerable ICTC actors, Kristen Tripp Kelley and Christian Brandjes.  The play opened in Dublin earlier this year, and is now touring Ireland. As this was the US premiere, he says, “There aren’t many places or other productions to look in on, to see how others have dealt with the piece. Honestly though, by and large, it’s a really freeing position to be in.”

The original novel was 450 pages long: playwright Linehan “honors the spirit of the work,” says Kelly, in this 90 minute version, which allows it to become its own work, and not merely a segment of the longer piece. Kelly likes Linehan’s treatment, stating, “I think fans will be pleased with the adaptation and the great care we take with Binchy’s world and characters.” 

The story is poignant: Noel is an alcoholic, and he unexpectedly becomes the “minder” of baby girl Frankie. His quirky family helps him care for the child, yet he still has to convince a disapproving social worker that this unconventional set up is in the baby’s best interest. Kelly cast Christian Brandjes and Kristen Tripp Kelley as Noel and Moira respectively, but they also portray a variety of other characters to illustrate the rest of Frankie’s extended family. Because they are both “earthy, honest, and versatile actors,” says Kelly, they bring their best to the wealth of characters in this story. Look for a production that’s lively, fun, and while it may be sentimental, there’s nothing wrong with that.

And millions of other Binchy fans around the world agree.

“Minding Frankie” is onstage from November 3-26, 2017 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.