Southern Oregon’s holiday season wouldn’t be complete without Tomáseen Foley’s “A Celtic Christmas” at the Craterian Theatre in Medford.
Last weekend, Foley’s mixed-media show of song, dance, music and stories sold out again for the 23rd annual performance.
Rich in the traditions of Western Ireland, the music of “A Celtic Christmas” alternates between the melancholic and the lively.
Longtime music director William Coulter was on guitar and usually out of the limelight as his crew of talented performers made magic. Fiddler Eimear Arkins brought forth marvelous strains which haunted and thrilled the soul; it was her last performance before heading home to County Clare for the holidays.
Cleveland pipemaker Brian Bigley was on tap for flute, whistle and uilleann pipes, taking time out to explain the workings of those peculiar bagpipes so different from the traditional Scottish Highlands instrument. Brid O’Donnell was on accordion.
Irish step dance is one of the most exciting dance forms, a compelling mix of tap and ballet performed in hard- or soft-soled shoes. All of Tomáseen Foley’s musicians dance, but the two principal dancers, Marcus Donnelly and Alyssa Reichert, stole the show. The resounding stamp of their hard shoes was a staccato pulse that primed the audience, and when Reichert wore soft soles, on her toes at times, she seemed to float on the musical notes. Reichert, just back from a Riverdance tour in China, danced in the traditional way, with her arms straight at her sides and her upper body stiff. Donnelly on the other hand was more contemporary in style and used his arms and body in a more fluid fashion. Together they were fun and fantastic.
A high point of the show was a dance competition where Foley invited the audience to compete on stage with Donnelly, who first demonstrated the steps of the dance. Despite that impressive, imposing and intimidating example, several of the audience flanked the stage and were ready to compete. Foley’s invitation may have been rhetorical, though, as there were no stairs to the stage, and Donnelly’s real competition was Brian Bigley, who was powerful and polished. The two danced head to head until out of breath and sweat ran down their cheeks.
Foley is said to be a Gaelic Garrison Keillor, and Foley’s “A Celtic Christmas,” an Irish “Prairie Home Companion.” Foley was dressed in a sweater that shined electric blue in the spotlight. His hair is now silver and shines as well. Perched comfortably on a chair, a coffee cup at his side, Foley sat quietly off to the side of the stage while his musicians and dancers performed.
At first one hand taps the rhythms of the violin and one toe echoes the beat. As the music expands, the fiddle becomes more exciting, the pipes and accordion swell and the dance more wild. Now Foley’s feet rap the boards lightly, both hands tap and his head nods but his body is reserved. Foley’s task here is to appreciate his musicians and dancers, his charm kept back for stories.
The Irish are known for long, interminable and delightful stories, and Foley’s “A Celtic Christmas” stories are such. With a narrative arc that reaches from early in the show to the very end, Foley tells the tales of his youth, learned at the hearth of his grandparents in the small rural parish of Teampall where he was raised.
Every year, the stories are new, and for 2018, it’s the story of Big Tate, who at the great age of 65 decides he’s ready to marry. Inevitable digressions and ramblings that charm and mystify involve beards and shaving, country dance, newspapers and Dwight D. Eisenhower, until at last Big Tate finds a wife.
Foley’s Medford “Celtic Christmas” performances cap his annual touring season. Foley got his start about 25 years ago when he told stories at an open mic event at the Ashland library. The next year he performed “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” with the Ashland Community Theater and then a show at the Ashland Community Center. That’s when Steve McCandless caught Foley’s act and invited him to the Craterian.
So Foley’s annual performance of “A Celtic Christmas” at the Craterian is personal. There’s a softness to his voice when he says, “Here in the Rogue Valley,” and you know you’re home for Christmas, too.
“May you live to this time next year,” Foley closed, as the crowd cheered.
For those who want more Tomáseen Foley and to experience Ireland with a master, Foley and piper Brian Bigley will be leading a tour of the old country in August 2019. Foley said he’s had numerous requests to do so over the years and was finally encouraged to organize a tour.
For more information on Foley’s performances and music, see TomaseenFoley.com.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at firstname.lastname@example.org.