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Riot Act

Review by Patrick Ledwell

Like the word couplings “resident alien” and “family vacation,” the phrase “riot act” is an oxymoron. Even so, “Riot Act” is a fitting name for an ensemble performing as part of the Stanley Bridge Festival, running throughout the summer in the newly-rechristened Barn Theatre. Their music, with its roots firmly planted in traditional soil, strikes the peculiar contradiction of craziness and control that defines the Celtic spirit, at least for this writer. Like the bands of a Celtic pattern, the musical lines of the performers are so densely woven that the point is not to successfully follow each one, but to lose your head a bit in the attempt.

Happily assembled from parts of other still vibrant bands, the performers share the ability to expertly balance fingerwork and freewheeling. Piper John MacPhee, who performs in the acclaimed Celtic group Slainte Mhath, conjures elaborately snaking tunes out of an assortment of traditional winds, including the Irish and the Highland pipes. MacPhee’s Irish pipes often dance in perfect lockstep with the fiddle lines spun by Ward MacDonald, whose unique footstomping slips around in a way that his jigs and reels never do. Hearing them play in a clockwork mesh, it’s easy to forget that their performance is highly practiced, and not just the effortless result—as in Greek myth—of wind passing over charmed wood.

Besides providing a supple piano and guitar backbone, Lester Stubbert and Margie Carmichael take center stage and intersperse their original songs throughout the show, bookending the traditional tunes with stories of the land and people whose spirit created the music. Stubbert is a masterful guitar picker, and his hands fly across the frets like a cat expertly walking somewhere it knows it shouldn’t.

In one of her introductions, Carmichael speaks of the red roads that connect the Island like blood vessels. She surely must have direct right-of-way to the beating heart of this country; time and time again, her songs are precise and humorous cartographers of our roads inward and out. Whether she is extolling the plight of the maligned come-from-away, the coyote, or expressing the frustrations of a would-be Islander, his umbilical cord prematurely cut while a-ferry, she is able to illustrate how the Island elevates the phrase “resident alien” into a mysterious cultural policy.

On the alien theme, I did try to adopt the mindset of a summer visitor during the performance, and particularly with the fiddle and pipe sets, would have appreciated more context to flesh in the tradition. At one point, even the performers joked that the next unnamed reel goes “diddly-diddly-dee,” rather than the “da-da-diddly-diddly” of the foregoing, also unnamed tune. MacDonald is a natural storyteller, and when he mentions that a composition is a lullaby for a newborn or that another has been passed down from his father, it gathers the audience—even those without red soil in their fingernails—into a wider celebration of how tradition binds families together.

“Riot Act” might unravel the “family vacation” contradiction as well, as the show featured several friends and family members who—with and without shoes—spontaneously leaped onto the stage to stepdance. The only riot produced by this act is comprised of warm laughter, and you’d do well to let yours ring in the rafters of the Barn Theatre this summer.

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