Celtic Charm

Irish plays to be the focus at Wilde Playhouse.

Joan O'Dwyer is wild about all things Irish: the plays, the literature, the music, the dancing, the entire ambience. She's a one-woman Irish import-export business, right down to her own identity. First she exported herself to Dublin to earn a 2001 master's degree in creative writing from Trinity College. Then, when she got divorced, she assumed her mother's maiden name--Dwyer--and restored the O' that had dropped off a few generations back when the family came to America. And this month she's establishing a little colony of Irish culture on Congress Street.

Not long ago, O'Dwyer paid $195,000 for the building at 135 E. Congress St., formerly occupied by the Dinnerware Gallery. Within the next couple of weeks, she'll reopen the space as Wilde Playhouse, where she will produce plays largely but not exclusively on Irish themes.

If O'Dwyer succeeds, she'll be a key player in transforming downtown into a theater district, joining the well-established Temple of Music and Art on Scott, as well as the still-developing Quintessential Productions in the warehouse across Broadway from the Greyhound bus station, and, on Stone just north of the underpass, the nascent Beowulf Alley and the iconoclastic Mat Bevel Institute.

If O'Dwyer fails, she'll be adding one more empty building to the desolate east end of downtown. She knows perfectly well that she won't make a profit from theatrical productions. That's why Wilde Playhouse will double as a wine and espresso bar, with late-night American Idol-style competitions between various sorts of entertainers.

O'Dwyer had intended to have the place open by now, but the building is still crowded with construction crews rather than actors and espresso addicts. When she dropped by two weeks ago to check on progress, workers had dug up the sidewalk by the front door to weld a copper water pipe; inside, a large fan blew fumes back toward the street as painters slathered coats of "nocturnal sea" blue and "lunar light" cream on the walls. Still to come are the bar fixtures, state-of-the-art theatrical lighting system, stock for the wine cellar down below, Dublin crystal, Irish jewelry, and tables and chairs and comfy leather couches from Ikea to surround the stage area. O'Dwyer's friend Paula Baloun stopped by to unfurl one of the cloth banners she's making to adorn the walls, each illustrating an Irish literary figure ("Plus Shakespeare," said O'Dwyer; "he's honorary Irish").

The cabaret seating plan will allow theater patrons to sip coffee, tea, beer or wine during performances, while noshing on European pastries and aged cheese. Of course, they can also do this 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, but the theatrical presentations will run only Wednesday through Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

Wilde Playhouse's inaugural production, Nov. 28-Dec. 2, will be Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency, about the trials of Irish-born writer Oscar Wilde for practicing the love that dare not speak its name. The season will continue with Behold the Sacred Potato, four short plays by David Ives; Translations by Brian Friel; the bawdy Commedia Americana, a revival and updating of commedia dell'arte buffoonery by Jules Tasca; and an extended summer run of O'Dwyer's own interactive Irish murder mystery, Mulligan's Wake.

O'Dwyer intends to pay her actors and technicians ("You can't expect people to show up on time and put their hearts into a job for free"), hence the (theoretically) profit-generating components: the wine/espresso bar, the battle of improvisational groups late Fridays, the "superstar search" late Saturdays.

But it's the plays O'Dwyer seems to love most. "I always have loved reading plays of all types; Shakespeare is my favorite," she said. "I acted in college, but then kind of forgot about it. However, I've always taken my children to plays (as much or more than to movies) and we really discuss them to death afterwards."

Now it's not unusual for O'Dwyer to attend the theater three times a week, seeing many productions more than once.

This is O'Dwyer's first effort to become a professional impresario. Over the years she's worked as a bookkeeper, rookie cop and welfare worker. She was an activist for farmworker and homeless housing in San Diego in the 1980s and early '90s, during which time she also taught creative writing to homeless women at a YWCA shelter. "I helped the women put out a newsletter for awhile, and they performed their own skits and playlets in the annual 'Homeless for the Homeless' variety show," she said.

Through Wilde Playhouse, O'Dwyer intends to transfer some of her social-worker interests to teens, guiding them in street theater projects. She also hopes to begin offering classes to kids and adults this spring or summer on improvisation, stage combat and other elements of stage work.

First, though, she has to get the place open, which hasn't been the smoothest process. "For two minutes once every month I feel like I want to give up the whole thing," she admitted. "But I get over it right away. All I really want is to get theater to people it hasn't gotten to. And as for me, I'll get to know actors and I can have all the plays I want and see them all the time. I'm just a theater junkie."

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