'A Couple of Blaguards'

Tom Koelbel, left, as Frank Mc Court with Alan Austin, right, as Malachy McCourt. 

Irish Americans have a long and rich history in this country; and like many immigrants, they had their share of hardships and mishaps — which can make for brilliant comedy. The McCourt brothers’ comedic and stirring A Couple of Blaguards captures a piece of this American history.

The popular two-man play is returning to Arizona for one night only on June 20 in the new Forum Theatre, 700 W. Warner Road in Chandler.

“It’s a real tour de force,” said Marney Austin, executive producer and director of the show.

The Chandler show will feature Alan Austin and Tom Koelbel playing Frank and Malachy McCourt, respectively. This will be the second performance by this cast.

In March, Marney of Murder Ink Productions was invited by Theatre Artists Studio to stage a performance for their St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser and she thought A Couple of Blaguards was the perfect fit.

Alan, Marney’s husband, had performed the play alongside Graham Thatcher, who had replaced Malachy in the original production after the real brother left.

“I did the show with Graham down in Tucson about 10 years ago, and so we decided we should revive it,” Alan said.

“But we needed a new Malachy,” Marney added.

At the time, Tom had been performing in another play and they chose him for the role.

“Right off the page, it’s funny,” said Tom, “I couldn’t wait to start playing with the characters.”

The St. Patrick’s Day performance was a huge success, and it was clear the two men would play the McCourts again.

“Even though it’s about Irish Catholics, I think the message is universal,” said Tom.

Tom Koelbel is half Irish and has been acting for 12 years. He’s used to playing complex and colorful roles. Only three months after he began theater classes, he landed a lead in his first play called Norman Is That You? where he played a retired Jewish dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio, with a gay son. Since then he has been in several commercials and local Arizona films.

Alan, however, has been on the scene for quite a lot longer.

“I started very young and never really stopped,” he said.

Alan was born in England and attended school both there and France. He eventually found his way to Singapore where he taught English and theater, wrote his own musicals and plays, and even acted on television. Marney was also in Singapore at the time doing theater and the two met performing Virginia Woolf.

“I hated him during the show,” she said. “But after the play I decided he was OK.”

The two have been married now for 24 years and started their own murder mystery company when they moved to Arizona.

“We’re all immigrants in some way,” said Alan.

The play is based on the true lives of the two brothers born in 1930s New York, raised through destitution in Limerick, Ireland, and finally returning to America to find literary and theatrical success.

The word “blaguards” originated from the term “black guards,” who were coal-covered dock workers in Ireland that watched over shipments. It evolved into blaguard and came to mean rogue or a charming troublemaker.

According to Alan, the McCourts would bring a filing cabinet filled with skits onto the stage and perform them, eventually transforming those bits into a full scripted play.

Frank took the first half of A Couple of Blaguards and developed it into the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angela’s Ashes in 1996, which became the well known film in 1999. Malachy wrote and performed his own pieces and even ran for New York state governor in 2006.

The story, which follows Frank and Malachy from childhood to adulthood, has 47 parts altogether; a challenge for any seasoned actor. Koelbel was initially overwhelmed by the number of parts he had to play, with character changes denoted only with the movement of a tea towel.

“The biggest challenge for me was doing a whole bunch of characters with an Irish accent and have them all sound distinct,” said Koelbel.

While Frank died in 2009, Malachy is still kicking at 83 years and A Couple of Blaguards is still alive both in Arizona and around the country, making audiences laugh and cry.

“Find the love, find the laughter,” said Marney. “When you walk out of a theater, you should be moved by what you saw.”

The performance will be on Saturday, June 20 at 6 p.m. at the Forum Theatre, formerly Fazio’s Catering Hall, 700 W. Warner Road, Chandler. Tickets are $20, which you can purchase by calling 480-967-6800, or forum.ticketbud.com/a-couple-of-blaguards.

• Justin Stabley, a senior at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for GetOut. Contact him at 480-898-6514 or tribintern@evtrib.com.

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