Basra Boy is a Belfast play to its core. The one-man production centers on an 18-year-old Belfast punk, who has a dirty mouth, a penchant for trouble, and who debates joining the Royal Army to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was written in dialect, with plenty of Belfast slang. And, needless to say: Its playwright, Rosemary Jenkinson, is a Belfast native. You’d think, then, that the first place you’d be able to see Basra Boy would be in Belfast.
You can’t see the play in Northern Ireland, at least not yet. It’s premiering this weekend on Church Street NW, as part of the Keegan Theatre’s current season.
This isn’t the first time Keegan—-which stages at least one Irish play per season—-has produced one of Jenkinson’s plays. Last season, the company premiered Stella Morgan, a two-character show about a working woman in Belfast who believes she can communicate with the dead.
This time, however, Keegan is tackling a show written for one actor, yet containing a host of characters. But Josh Sticklin, the actor tasked with that assignment, has a somewhat unexpected background. “For a while, my bread and butter has been in children’s theater,” he says. “This play is a really interesting perspective.”
The script’s demands are intense. In one sequence Sticklin portrays four different boys, bickering over whether an elephant has a foot or a hoof, while simultaneously commenting on the action as one character’s older self. The process can be daunting. “For me, it’s not the physical fatigue,” says Sticklin, who tries to give his characters unique voices and physicality. “It’s the mental fatigue… it’s like mania.”
Another memorable sequence sees Sticklin portraying Speedy (the play’s central character) at a bar, the woman rejecting Speedy’s advances, Speedy as he recounts the story to a friend, and the friend commenting on the story.
“I think so far that’s one of the hardest transitions,” he says. “The flips are mid-sentence.”
Still, Sticklin says the one-man element adds a great deal to Basra Boy. “It assists kick-starting [the audience’s] imagination,” he says. “I like going to theater where there’s this sort of direct address to the audience.”
The show’s director, Abigail Isaac, agrees. “We have to pay more attention,” she says. “We can see the contrast between characters… without just saying ‘Oh, those are two different actors.’”
Sticklin and Isaac agree one of their greatest challenges has been grappling with Basra Boy’s Northern Irish dialect and slang. The script calls for Sticklin, an American, to fully commit to lines like “right up the wellick I get him… as he’s about to hit the deck, I boot him right up the jackpipe, he is donald-ducked.”
“We’re still figuring [the slang] out,” Isaac said. “I feel like we’ve had a few ‘ah-ha’ moments.”
Basra Boy runs Feb. 19 to March 11 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. (703) 892-0202