“If you can use some exotic booze/There’s a bar in far Bombay/Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away…” –from “Come Fly With Me,” which opens THE SMUGGLER
I will drop anything, travel anywhere, to experience certain things in life. My anything-anywhere list includes Vermeer exhibitions at any museum; beluga caviar tastings; Stephen Sondheim musicals; film festivals focusing on either Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock or Paul Thomas Anderson; book signings by favorite writers; Thai restaurants with particularly flavorful tom ka gai soup; any gatherings that serve three-olive martinis; and, the reason for this review, one-person shows starring Giles Davies.
A year and a half ago, Mr. Davies, a Tampa treasure for over a decade, was my Welcome Back to the theater after the pandemic lockdown. His one-man performance of him in Jobsite’s Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus in October 2020 was both terrifying and heartfelt (Davies made you feel sorry for the monster); it was also the first show I had seen in eight months. Nowadays, since theaters have been slowly coming back to the Bay Area and to Broadway, I have been venturing out more as well. So, when I saw that Mr. Davies was in another one-person show–this time Ronan Noone’s THE SMUGGLER–I dropped everything and traveled the hour and a half drive to Sarasota’s Urbanite Theater to witness Mr. Davies’ genius in action .
Mr. Davies doesn’t just inhabit every part of this very clever and original play; he connects with the audience, speaking directly to us with a twinkle in his eye, filling the entire theater with his persona de él, creating a truly one-of-a-kind immersive experience. This isn’t just a 70-minute monologue; this is an edge-of-your-seat travelogue into the darkness of despair and the light of redemption. And no one is better than Mr. Davies at tackling the sharp divides of human nature; he makes you laugh, he makes you cry, and best of all, he makes you think.
Critic Roger Ebert once said about a film’s greatness: “It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” The same works for theatre. A show can be about a lot of things, but it’s how it’s about these things that matter most. THE SMUGGLER deals with a lot of issues-the struggles of immigrants, fatherhood, writing, bartending, brutal rat attacks, and migrant smuggling (the reason it’s called THE SMUGGLER). But it’s not the issues that are the forefront here (they are all over the place); it’s the way the issues are handled, the stories that come alive with Davies at the helm of Noone’s script (which, to complicate matters, is in verse).
Davies is so good that Noone’s verse sounds so natural, even though it’s cleverly a stretch in the rhyming department (“sexist”/”breakfast,” “toilet”/”exploited,” “nothin'”/”cuff ’em,” etc .) But it makes this unlike any other show I have seen. (No wonder the play won the Best Playwright Award at the Origin Theater Company’s 1st Irish Festival of New York.) Noone’s writing in Davies’ hands casts a spell on you. For instance, take this beautifully written line, which is spoken near the beginning of THE SMUGGLER and sets the tone for things to come: “I went to Ellis Island and there’s pictures on the wall of immigrants who went through that hall. And this Italian guy said, a saying of old, he’d heard the streets of America were paved with gold. But on the day he got off that ship. He learned three things allowing him to quip. One: the streets of America were not paved with gold. Two: The streets of America were not paved at all and Three: He had to pave them all.“Wow, that’s incredible writing.
Noone’s language is hypnotic, and Davies draws us in with his charisma, his ear for dialects (with help from dialect coach Patricia Delorey), and his ability to jump into the skin of the various personalities, sometimes seconds apart. We never doubt who is talking to whom, what the focus is, or where the story goes.
We follow Davies to the extremes–quiet moments and loud bangs; delicately taking care of a child and the jolt-the-audience-out-of-their-chairs shock of killing someone. There’s one extended sequence with a rat–both brutally funny, grossly detailed, and gigglingly horrific–that may be some of the best acting I’ve seen Davies do (and that’s saying something; he has never been less than superlative in the many shows I’ve seen him in.) Oftentimes we imagine people (or rats) that are not there; that’s how distinctly Davies creates this world.
The show opens with Davies as Tim Finnegan, the titular Irish smuggler, a bartender making drinks to the sound of Frank Sinatra (he sometimes mouths the words as the booze flows). Eight people sitting at small circular tables get to imbibe in the drinks Mr. Davies is concocting–a Kamikaze (some of the lucky people who were served told me that the drink was delicious; perhaps Davies should add bartending onto his list of talents) . And then the tale begins, a wild ride that runs a brisk 70 minutes. (When the show ended, I was shocked that much time had elapsed; I thought we were at the forty-minute mark.)
Costume designer Dee Sullivan keeps the wardrobe simple and appropriate–Davies dons a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, a tie and vest. The speakeasy set, designed by the seemingly ubiquitous Frank Chavez (he has created so many sets to so many local shows, all opening around the same time), works quite well, with the red wallpaper reminding me of the interiors of Bern’s Steak House. It gives us the necessary sense of intimacy. Alex Pinchin and Simean Carpenter’s evocative lighting design brilliantly underscores the changes in Davies’ storylines, from the brightness of better days to the gory reds of hell on earth. It works fluidly in tandem with Davies’ animated physical moves; it’s as if his moods control this universe. Best of all, all of these elements come together so that we forget we’re in a theatre; we get the feeling that we are in this actual barroom throughout.
Director Brendan Ragan smartly lets Davies be Davies, always making the brave choice, keeping things unpredictable, sometimes taking our breath away. At one moment, Davies appears from behind a wall, his head seeming to float horizontally. It’s just an instant, quick as a flash, but it made me laugh out loud. With Davies, led by Ragan’s vision, anything is possible.
Giles Davies usually performs in the Tampa area, and this is the first time he’s worked with Urbanite, which is certainly becoming one of the most consequential theater companies in all of Sarasota. Hopefully Sarasota residents will travel to Urbanite and see for themselves what we in Tampa and St. Pete have known for years–that this is one of the finest actors working in our area, and very few individuals could bring a script like this to life in such an effective, moving way. It needs to be seen, and you only have until February 20th to join him on this journey, this engaging Tilt-A-Whirl of a play.