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Roche's 'Cavalcaders' offers life, love and song -- brilliantly acted

Irish Billy Roche has been writing plays for only 20 years, but since three works collectively known as "The Wexford Trilogy" met great acclaim, he is mentioned in the same breath with icons of the Irish Renaissance, J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey. Not bad for a 1980s rocker fronting his own group, the Roach Band. Theater historian Michael Billington has said that Roche "explores the cramping effects of small-town Irish culture in minute, Chekhovian detail."

Mr. Billington just might be on to something. Roche's essentially gloomy "The Cavalcaders," the second production of the Irish Classical Theatre Company's new season, has just as many if-only's and maybes and clouds of gray as any Russian play could guarantee. But there are laughs and music, too, and everyone, in the grand tradition of Irish theater, has a story to tell, keen observers on the human condition and wry commentators as well. Life, love and song. Not a bad premise for a story.

Meet The Cavalcaders: Terry, Rory, Josie and Ted. The four mates work in a seen-better-days cobbler's shop. Terry owns the place, but Rory is taking it over. As the torch passes, memories light up the dingy room. The friends were once a barbershop quartet of some local fame -- fairs, talent shows, revues and the like. Packing up, Terry slips into reverie, glory days of close harmony -- even closer harmony with each other's wives and girlfriends -- and the story here becomes a memory exercise, backward-forward trips along several time lines that test audience attention.

We learn that Terry has been cuckolded but is seeking solace with soft, pretty but unstable shop girl, Nuala; Josie is ailing; quiet Ted is wooing Rory's wife; no-nonsense hairdresser Breda, who sees something in Terry to save, can wither him with ease: "You always were a lovely liar," she tells him.

Memory evolves into fever-inspired hallucination as Terry's affair with Nuala is replayed -- ending badly -- and hints of some dark deed partnership long ago with Josie. Revelations, pieces of plot, come very quickly in late play, and the tale gets back in the present for good. Roche's writing is frenzied in the late going.

The songs are fun and well sung: barbershop novelty tunes, the sorrowful "Sayonara Street," a standard or two. There's a vaudeville routine. The night constantly surprises.

Tom Zindle -- marvelous in a career role as emotional, complex Terry -- leads a stellar cast. It is a Buffalo theater season of outstanding acting ensembles: add to the list Zindle, superb veterans Chris Kelly and Guy Balotine, young pro Andrew Moss, steady Beth Donohue and the captivating Cassie Gorniewicz, smitten and hurt as Nuala. A break-up scene between Terry and Nuala is powerful, painful and a pulse-pounder.

Derek Campbell's direction is brisk and sage. A set by Ron Schwartz is appropriately cluttered.

***

"The Cavalcaders"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Presented by Irish Classical Theatre Company through Nov. 23 in Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.

For more information, call 853-4282 or visit www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.

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