The first full weekend of the Galway International Arts Festival in 2022 has won the day with its packed program of indoor and outdoor events. There were plenty of outdoor moments to enjoy: tightrope walkers crossing the River Corrib back and forth in the Life Line project organized by Galway Community Circus; members of Guru Dudu’s silent disco walking tour sing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” to a bride-to-be spotted in the window of Coyote’s on Shop Street upstairs; Compagnie Off parade of monumental red giraffes magically walking through the pedestrianized streets on Saturday evening.

Walking from one site to another was also nice. The city’s laid-back vibe is the stuff of cultural legend, and artists always seem happy to be invited back. Several star performers are back this year. Ana Maria Pacheco’s exhibition “Dark Night of the Soul” became the main event of the festival in 2017; her new exhibition, Remember, at the Festival Gallery, features several groups of eerie woodcarved figures and is undoubtedly one of the best exhibitions in the country this year.

Endo Walsh is also back with the ninth installment of his Rooms series. Middle Bedroom at Columban Hall on the Sea Road is set in a bedroom full of antique furniture and a lifetime of clutter. It features the voice of Rory Nolan as an aging father and his increasingly irritable son. Their relationship is as claustrophobic as the room itself. Middle Bedroom is a modest effort by Walsh’s standards – he is, after all, the man the late David Bowie tapped to write the script for his musical Lazar – But his other contribution to this year’s festival is a much more elegant thing – opera The first childco-written with composer Donnacha Dennehy, featuring a children’s choir and the Crash Ensemble.

Joan Sheehy and Eric Jurenas in The First Child, the third in a trilogy of operas by composer Donachie Dennehy and writer/director End Walsh. Photo: Ste Murray

Steppenwolf is also back. The legendary Chicago theater company was last in Galway in 2007 with Cormac McCarthy Sunset Limited Company. This year they are back with Sam Shepard The real West. The Town Hall Theater production stars John Michael Hill as Austin, a writer who looks after his mother’s house while she is on vacation in Alaska, and Namir Smallwood as his older brother Lee, a petty thief and misfit who has just flown out of desert. The play has many surprising twists, not the least of which is Lee’s ability to play golf and his success in getting a visiting producer, played by director Randall Arney, to support his idea for a modern western script. The performance is held to rarity; in fact, its focus on the American male rivalry is perhaps more relevant now than when it was first performed in 1982. Arnie and Hill are superb as the warring brothers, although Ora Jones threatens to outshine them both with her late appearance as their unyielding mother.

Donal Ryan novel 2018 From the low and quiet sea is his best, but its episodic structure suggests that adapting the book for the stage will be difficult. Ryan got around this by writing it as a series of monologues by the novel’s four main characters: the Syrian refugee Farouk; Lumpy’s guardian; his mother, Florence; and the immoral moneylender John. Everyone, in their own way, with a broken heart. Farooq Aasaf Afzal tells a poignant account of his arrival in Ireland after a desperate sea crossing in which he lost his wife and daughter. Lampy reveals how distracted he was after his girlfriend Chloe ended their relationship. John Lorcan Kranich recalls the improbable love intrigue that led him to perform the only act in his life, which he seems to sincerely regret. Florence turns out to be the link between the three. The world premiere of this production, directed by Andrew Flynn, at the Nuns Island Theater is a truly moving drama that proves that Ryan can become as famous for his work for the stage as for the page.

If From the low and quiet sea it is a discreet affair, Fibín sa Taibhdhearc’s Muk Ri quite the opposite. The show, written and directed by Philip Doherty, is performed as Gaeilge (with English subtitles) on an open stage with singer Julie Feeney, a live orchestra and zombie dancers. Based on an obscure Irish folk tale, the play revolves around a competition between a mad inventor and his assistant to create the perfect prosthesis for a king who has lost one of his arms in battle. It has gore, gore, eye gouging and backstabbing, and if the overall effect is far from subtle, the show has a sense of anarchic fun. Indeed, the frenetic production and dark humor – and the inclusion of a motorcycle – recall the heyday of legendary French acts Archaos.

The Galway International Arts Festival runs until July 24. Some upcoming events include the Druid’s production of a Sonny Kelly play The last return at the Mick Lally Theater (through July 23), Friday, July 22, The Flaming Lips at the Big Top; and Shaun Lynch’s What is an Apparatus exhibition at Galway Arts Center (until 24 July).

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