Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Howie the Rookie
is Riveting Theater

The Magic Theatre is presenting the West Coast premier of Mark O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie with two amazing Irish actors Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels. The theater group was originally set to present this riveting play to American audiences here in San Francisco however the production decided to go to New York first. There it received critical acclaim. Ben Brantley of the New York Times said "It's one of those rare, shiver making instances in which language seems to become truly physical". How true a statement that is. Sitting in the front row of the small theater we felt the passion, the anger, the terror coming from these two amazing actors.

Howie first opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999 where it was declared by critics to be one of the most realist plays of the season. The actors took possession of the audience as only the best theater can.

The story of Howie the Rookie was told in two simple interconnected monologues running 45 minutes each. The first was delivered by Howie Lee. After an intermission, we heard the same events from a different perspective by Rookie Lee.

The stories were cleverly connected and the audience was treated to a white knuckled ride through the dirty dives of Dublin. There were bizarre feuds of honor that involved some stolen fighting fish and a scabies-ridden mattress. These two items brought the two lads violently together. There was a gangland revenge against Rookie because of the stolen Thai fish and there was a surprising twist that made one man the tragic hero of the other man's story.

This was all done by two extraordinary young Irish actors, Aidan Kelly and Karl Shields. It took about 5 to 10 minutes to get your ear tuned to the heavy Irish street language. In fact when Howie starts to talk about "the mat" you have no idea what he is talking about. Everything he said was in precise and poetic detail. The language and images were very vivid and it was quite beautiful. O'Rowe's writing was more like wonderful Irish literature then drama.

The actors used no props. There is a simple but effective set. The rear wall was a slate gray panel with a thin line that snakes across the panel like a strand of barbed wire. A thicker line transected the black slab that serves as the stage floor and a band that glowed a hot white or red or faded to a dull median strip of a city street. The total effect of the production was grasping, sobering and exhilarating. This is must see theater for the avid theater goers.

Howie the Rookie runs through March 4 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason. Tickets are $25-$30. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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