From the initial moments when Nicholas Barasch’s Francie Brady introduces himself to us with wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm in Irish Repertory Theatre’s The Butcher Boy, we are mesmerized by his beauty and youthful vitality. Director Ciarán O’Reilly’s choice of actor is spot-on, for Barasch with openhanded good will carries us into the depths of Francie’s mind-bending phantasmagoria that leads him to a psychotic abyss from which he most probably will never escape.
The Butcher Boy, a new musical fashioned by the uber talented Asher Muldoon, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, is based on Patrick McCabe’s titular novel, which also engendered an award winning film adaptation that McCabe helped co-write. The novel won the 1992 Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize.
Muldoon, who, with Sammy Grob accomplished the orchestrations and vocal arrangements, has created a genius work that will be controversial because it is refreshingly “out there” and unique. In the Playbill, the playwright discusses being enamored of the novel as a junior in high school. Muldoon’s passion propelled him to focus all of his talents on creating a musical adaptation that is prescient, strangely heartfelt, darkly ironic and tragicomic. Thanks to the director, cast and creatives, this amazing production lingers in one’s memory long after one leaves the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage of the Irish Repertory Theatre, where The Butcher Boy currently runs until 11th of September.
O’Reilly’s vision of Francie’s world merges fantasy with reality creating an extraordinary surreality through which we understand the flashback vignettes that Francie Brady presents about his childhood. In Francie’s narration one may wonder if he is reliable, and as his discussion continues, believe he is not. However, that is not the point. What is the point is the emotional content which he confides to us that gains our sympathy. In a straight-forward manner he reveals how he takes his own form of vengeance on a narrow-minded town that offers him few opportunities to be anything else than what it defines him to be. Agree with him or disagree, his story is authentic, comedic and poignant. Considering the current state of the world and young adult men his age who are desperate for a myriad of reasons, it is also very believable.
Using a well conceived set design by Charlie Corcoran dominated by a large TV screen center stage upon which various thematic projections play out, O’Reilly highlights Francie’s and friend Joe Purcell’s escapism into the television shows of the time, i.e. ‘The Twilight Zone’ and the ‘The Lone Ranger,’ revealing their powerful influence on impressionable minds. Along with comic books whose memes cover their board slatted “hideaway” that lines the outer walls of the stage and boxes in the action, we realize how Francie and Joe (Christian Strange), are shaped by 1950s-1960s media.
Television, newspapers, magazines, comics magnify cultural entertainment curiosities and heighten fears of aliens, communists, monsters and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Muldoon peppers some of Francie’s memories with these notions as he presents this time in his life of beginnings and endings, of happiness and loss, of friendship and peace, which devolve into increasing humiliation and chaos after triggering events set Francie’s alienation in motion.
Spurred on by Joe’s idea, Francie and Joe run off with classmate Philip Nugent’s comic books. Mrs. Nugent (Michele Ragusa), visits Francie’s Ma (Andrea Lynn Green), censuring Francie and Joe for their abuse of Phillip (Daniel Marconi). Instead of appealing to Francie’s and Joe’s sense of honor to return the comics and restore good will between the families, Mrs. Nugent takes the punitive, vengeful approach. With classist arrogance, she insults mother Annie, blaming Francie’s actions on his “disgraceful,” alcoholic Da. She cruelly carps that Annie’s husband isn’t raising their son properly because he’s a drunk and stays in bars from “morning to midnight.”
Mrs. Nugent’s indelible words “he’s no better than a pig, A PIG,” imprint Francie’s mind with the full force of condemnation and verbal emotional abuse that neither Annie nor Francie can adequately defend against with clever, rebounding wit. They take in her scornful denunciation like a blow to the head that knocks them unconscious. It is a blow from which Francie will never recover.
For Annie and Francie Mrs. Nugent’s abusive, humiliating words ring with a “truth,” whose obvious malice is meant to destroy. Da (Scott Stangland), beats “sense” into Francie, despite Annie’s protest, as Francie finishes singing the song he and Joe exuberantly started at the top of the play, “Live Like This Forever.” During his father’s abuse, Francie reminisces about this “sweet and simple time,” singing as his father beats him, “if we lived like this forever, we’d be fine.”
We note the irony in this flashback, as Francie presents the seminal event from his past. Indeed, if this shameful time is “sweet,” then what terrible events will come where Francie and his parents “are not fine?” This is the first in a series of turning points when Francie reveals incidents after which he and his parents never gain solid footing again, living in “the bog life” of the small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and mores embrace “upright,” Catholic behavior. Such fine behavior eludes the Brady family.
The Nugent incident most probably sets off Annie into despairing her situation; as a Catholic, she is unable to divorce an alcoholic husband who doesn’t work. One day Francie finds her standing on a table with a fuse wire looped like a noose and hanging suspended from the ceiling. When she “goes away,” after suffering a nervous breakdown, Francie understands that she was taken to “the garage” for repairs. Interestingly, her breakdown incites Francie to a comedic expression of rage, when on the highroad, he meets Mrs. Nugent and Phillip, enemies and authors of his demise. Francie confronts them, but not with the truth of how much Mrs. Nugent devastated him with her comments. He can’t articulate his emotional state to her because he is incapable of verbalizing his sense of injustice and hurt at her judgment of him and his family.
Instead, he warns her that she and Phillip must pay the “Pig Poll Tax” to pass by him, the guard, who will protect them from the ranging piggies who may have gotten loose from their sty. His imaginative, bullying lie is escapist and funny, but it is also an incredibly sinister beginning to the end of his “sweet” childhood. As he demands payment for protection, Francie psychically hallucinates four pigs who become his companions (“Big Fat Piggies!”). Manifestations of his fury and rebellion, the piggies lead him on a tragic course that predictably ends in Francie’s embodying the title of the musical.
Though Phillip and Mrs. Nugent don’t see the piggies (David Baida, Carey Rebecca Brown, Polly McKie, Teddy Trice), the malevolent creatures materialize, (in macabre half masks), sing, ridicule, cavort and dance, thanks to the choreography of Barry McNabb. Francie answers Mrs. Nugent’s damning label by projecting the piggy metaphor onto her and Phillip, for the piggies suggest they will infiltrate the town and soon, “no one will know who is you and who is a piggy anymore.”
Inferred is the understanding that all, including Francie, are piggies that are capable of terrible mischief and evil, unless they are controlled. But who has the power to stop insidious thoughts before they materialize into acts of piggy violence? Furthermore, can an insulting condemnation that, like a bomb, annihilates the soul of a child, ever be properly answered? Or is the wound, that never heals, a permanent debility framing their life, as they carry it with them into adulthood? The musical conveys these questions and thematically answers them by the conclusion.
Francie’s clever use of Mrs. Nugent’s insult to sardonically reply with a money demand for protection against a threat of future piggy violence, allows him to disconnect from her humanity, as she has disconnected from his with her epithet. However, Francie’s imagination takes this to an extreme. With the emergence of the four piggies who haunt him until the musical concludes, it is clear Francie has internalized the pig metaphor in self-condemnation and self-hatred. Tragically, neither his mother nor his emotionally removed father give him the tools to understand, negotiate around and forgive Mrs. Nugent’s classist, un-Christian attitude. Left to his own devices, his psyche rebounds into fantasy and comic book heroes, and the strange talking piggies who emerge whenever they like, to provoke him to ruin.
The four piggies become his interactive companions, signifying Francie’s deteriorating mental state. They torture him to “live down” to Mrs. Nugent’s definition of the Brady family as pigs. They encourage him to deeds that are invariably anti-social, dangerous, aggressive and frighteningly rebellious.
As events unfold, Francie’s home situation worsens. His mother returns, sprung out of the psychiatric hospital to prepare for Uncle Alo’s yearly visit. She bakes cakes in a flurry of activity. Hypersensitive to gossip, Francie is aware of the townspeople’s view of his mother and the Brady family. However, many show up to the party Annie and Da hold for Uncle Alo (Joe Cassidy). Though the occasion begins with uplifting hope (“My Lovelies”), Da reveals the truth of Uncle Alo’s situation and embarrasses him in front of the party guests. A fight ensues and Francie realizes that he can’t tolerate the hellishness of his home life, so he escapes with the piggies to Dublin (“Ride Out!”).
On this fantastic journey where he imagines he can have adventures like a TV hero, he finds affection from a family who takes him in for a while. Though he lies about his identity, he manages to strike a rapport with William (Joe Cassidy), and Kathleen (Michele Ragusa), who sing optimistically about their lives, despite the depressing threat of nuclear war (“Still Here”). Their optimism is a key to their good nature and kindness toward Francie. The couple parallels his Uncle Alo and former love Kathleen, so they are a comfort to Francie. Additionally, he has a sweet conversational interlude with their daughter Mary (Kerry Conte), who forgives his theft from the cash drawer of the shop where she works, after he promises not to make trouble for her.
During the time he is in Dublin, he writes to Joe who chides Francie for leaving him behind. Without Francie near, Phillip approaches Joe to be friends. Because he is lonely, he accepts Phillip’s friendship (“Phillip’s Song”). Whether wittingly or not, Phillip’s divide and conquer strategy works. Francie is upset about any friendship between Joe and Phillip, encouraged to anger by the pigs who torment Francie about it. Joe is converted to Phillip’s lifestyle, which Francie ridicules and Joe defends. Provoked by the pigs who increasingly dominate his world, Francie fears losing Joe’s friendship. What he fears eventually comes upon him.
It is after the lovely interlude with Mary, whom he asks to marry him, the pleasant respite of relative normalcy with a kind-hearted family and lovely daughter ends abruptly. To the surprise of William and Kathleen, Da, who Francie told them was dead, collects his son, and they return home to a devilish situation. Annie has drowned herself in the pond. Unable to appropriately grieve, Francie is caught up with Nugent’s statement about “the Bradys.” She and town gossips once more have proven that the Brady family are “out of control,” subjects for pity and gossip which Francie knows is said about him. The piggies stir him to anger and paranoia (“Francie Gets Mad”).
Lashing out, unable to cope with his mother’s suicide, Francie’s psychotic emotional state converges in a series of events where he attempts to get revenge on Phillip. He is stopped by Joe who promises in a blood oath to maintain his friendship with Francie. It is an oath that Joe betrays in the second act, completely won over to the classist Nugents, ascribing to their lifestyle. Enamored by the Nugents status, Joe turns his back on Francie, who he rejects completely by the end of Act II. However, assured by their blood oath, Francie attempts to be “good,” but cannot help but humorously mock the Nugents during an imagined absurdist scene where he has tea with them (the superb props for this scene reflect his ridicule of their pretensions).
When he makes a faux pas and embarrasses himself during tea, he rebels against their notions of polite, well mannered society. He trashes their house, encouraged by his piggy companions (“The Magnificent Francie Brady/The School for Pigs”), and does something uncouth, unspeakable and very funny (seamlessly rendered by the creative team), which scandalizes the town and proves Francie is indeed the pig Mrs. Nugent declared him to be. The townspeople talk about Francie’s “act” years later; they are so hypocritically shocked by his impropriety.
As Act I ends, the creatives have authentically brought to life Francie world in a panorama of surreal, phantasmagoria, upon which he has come to depend upon to survive. It is an imagined reality where he increasingly fights off the bitter ugliness of his pitiable circumstances. Defiantly using hallucinated creatures as the weapons of his warfare to embody his emotional urges, whims and eruptions of anger, he exacts his revenge against his enemies, almost everyone. Confused, dislocated that it is he, himself, who effects the paranoid danger, he revels in self-annihilation.
Enhancing Francie’s world and devolution, Muldoon’s lighthearted music (a combination of lyrical pop, ballads and Irish influenced tunes directed by David Hancock Turner), is incredibly sardonic. The melodies in which the piggies show up are especially so, as they dance and evilly insinuate their presence into Francie’s inner life and outer actions. The pleasant lyricism conveys tragedy in a clash of potent, antithetical forces which are as intentionally jarring as Francie’s downhill descent into madness, superbly rendered by Barasch.
Clearly, Muldoon reflects McCabe’s themes of classism, bigotry, social hypocrisy, media escapism that exacerbates psychosis, as well as the ineffectiveness of mores and religion to humanly help individuals like Francie, who are suffering. Above all, Muldoon and the creative team in this wonderfully realized production remind us that inhumanity begins with cultural-social divisions of superior and inferior people, instead of viewing the human community with equanimity. The extent to which Mrs. Nugent’s defamation harms Francie’s soul, reveals how hate and violence crescendos in a terrible chain reaction that affects all in the town.
Like a fly caught in a spider’s web of malice, Francie cannot extricate himself from internalized self-condemnation. The bits of kindness and feeling he experiences from friend Joe, his Ma, his Uncle Alo, Kathleen and the Dublin family are too briefly felt to counteract his illness and propel him onto a path of self-love and self-forgiveness. When he attempts to seek redemption from his piggy inner state with visions of Mother Mary, the hope she brings is a betrayal and a canard, luring him to an apotheosis of violence at the play’s end.
If Francie fails, it is because religion, family, friendship, townspeople fail him; all cooperate in this endeavor and a potentially fine and amazing human being is cut down and butchered by all who contribute. Indeed if “No Man Is an Island,” as the John Donne poem states, Francie and the town surely exemplify this to a terrible degree.
The class distinction between Francie, Joe and the Nugents is suggested subtly in Charlie Corcoran’s set design of the meticulous Nugent kitchen with cabinets and a counter top covered by a lovely, white, flowery, embroidered cloth. These elements are in direct contrast to the Brady household which is minimalistic and stylized. For example, events and props define the Brady space: a table set up with cakes here, a chair which Da sits in there. By comparison, theirs is a shabby, opaque space that others like Mrs. Nugent may write upon with arrogant insult.
From costume design (Orla Long), lighting design (Kat C. Zhou), sound design (M. Florian Staab), production design (Dan Scully, mask design (Stanley Allan Sherman), and properties (Brandy Hoang Collier), we are brought into Francie’s unforgettable world with empathy, as we stand in his shoes and feel the personal terror of what he experiences. In its radical extremist point of view, the production succeeds in allowing us to feel Francie’s pain and his unique and astounding configurations to rid himself of it.
The ensemble are first-rate talents; the leads have lovely, strong voices. Barasch, Strange and Marconi are exceptional together, inhabiting the iterations of boyhood, reflecting diverse personalities and morphing with subtle nuance as they grow into adulthood. Onstage in each scene, continually pouring out of himself, Barasch gives an incredible, moment to moment performance, peeling back the veil to show us the development of Francie’s psychotic mind.
This is a vital musical and incredibly current. Though the setting takes place sixty years in the past in Clones, Ireland, the situation and title character remind us of the teenagers of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and Ulvade, Texas. Clearly, The Butcher Boy in whatever form, film, novel, musical is continually prescient, revealing failures in every institution that should support children. And on a human, personal level, it reminds us that rancid, classist-arrogant words tinged with hatred, show the wickedness of the speaker’s heart, not the ones labeled.
Irish Repertory Theatre’s production is rich with meaning and profound with empathy. It is one to see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://irishrep.org/tickets/
‘A Touch of the Poet’ The Irish Rep’s Brilliant Revival Exceeds Its Wonderful Online Performance. Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Poet’ is Amazing Glorious Theater!
From the moment Cornelius “Con” Melody (Robert Cuccioli) appears, shaking as he holds onto the stair railing of the beautifully wrought set by Charlie Corcoran, we are riveted. Indeed, we stay mesmerized throughout to the explosive conclusion of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s A Touch of the Poet by Eugene O’Neill. Compelled by Cuccioli’s smashing performance of Con, we are invested in this blowhard’s presentiments, pretenses and self-betrayal, as he unconsciously wars against his Irish heritage. Con is an iconic representative of the human condition in conflict between soul delusion and soul truth.
What will Con’s self-hatred render and will he take down wife Nora and daughter Sara (the inimitable pairing of Kate Forbes and Belle Aykroyd), in his great, internal classicist struggle? Will Con finally acknowledge and accept the beauty and enjoyment of being an Irishman with freedom and hope? Or will he continue to move toward insanity, encased in the sarcophagus image of a proper English gentleman? This is the identity he bravely fashioned as Major Cornelius Melody to destroy any smatch of Irish in himself. O’Neill’s answers in this truly great production of Poet are unequivocal, yet intriguing.
The conflict manifests in the repercussions of the drinking Con takes on with relish. So as Cuccioli’s Con attempts to gain his composure and stiffly make it over to a table in the dining room of the shabby inn he owns, the morning after a night of carousing, we recognize that this is the wreck of a man physically, emotionally, psychically. His shaking frame soothed by drink, which wife Nora (Kate Forbes), brings to him in servile slavishness, is the only companion he wants, for in its necessity as the weapon of destruction, it hastens Con’s demise. The beloved drink stirs up his bluster and former stature of greatness that he has lost forever as a failed Englishman and even bigger failure as comfortable landed gentry in 1828 Yankee country near Boston.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly and the cast heighten our full attention toward Con’s conflict with the romantic ideal of himself and the present reality that will eventually drive him to a mental asylum or a hellish reconciliation with truth. All of the character interactions drive toward this apotheosis. The actors are tuned beautifully in their portrayals to magnify the vitality of this revelation.
Nora (Forbes is authentic and likeable), is the handmaiden to Con’s process of dissolution. In order to fulfill her own glorified self-reflection and identity in loving this once admirable gentleman, she coddles him. Riding on the coattails of her exalted image of Con, she maintains beauty in her self-love. She loves him in his past glory, for after all, he chose to be with her. So Nora must abide in his every word and deed to maintain her loyal happiness, taking whatever few, kind crumbs he leaves for her under the table of their marriage. As a result, she would never chide or browbeat Con to quit the poison that is killing him.
The good whiskey he proudly provides for himself and friends like Jamie Cregan (the excellent Andy Murray), to help maintain the proper stature of a gentleman, steadies his mind. The whiskey also makes him feel in control of his schizoid personas. He clearly is not in control and never will be, unless he undergoes an exorcism. The audience perversely finds O’Neill’s duality of characterizations in Con and the others amusing if not surprising.
Cuccoli’s Con at vital moments rejects the painfully failed present by peering into his mirrored reflection to quote Lord Byron in one or the other of two mirrors positioned strategically on the mantel piece and a wall. There, fueled by the alcohol, he re-imagines the glorious military man of the Dragoons as he stokes his pride. Yet, with each digression into the past, he torments his inner soul for reveling in his failed delusion.
Likewise, each insult he lashes against Nora, who guilty agrees with him for being a low Irish woman, both lifts him and harms him. It is the image of the Major ridiculing Nora because of the stink of onions in her hair one moment, and in self-recrimination, apologizing moments after for his abusiveness. In his behavior is his attempt to recall and capture his once courageous, successful British martial identity, while rejecting the Irish humanity and decency in the deep composition of his inner self.
Always that true self comes through as he recognizes his cruelty. He behaves similarly with Sara, bellicose in one breath, apologetic in the next, fearful of her accusatory glance. In this production Con’s struggle, Nora’s love throughout and Sara’s resistance and war with herself and her father is incredibly realized and prodigiously memorable. O’Reilly and the cast have such an understanding of the characters and the arc of their development, it electrified the audience the night I saw it. We didn’t know whether to laugh (the humor originated organically as the character struggles intensified), or cry for the tragedy of it. So we did both.
Con’s self-recrimination and self-hatred is apparent to Nora whose love is miraculously bestowed. His self-loathing is inconsequential to Sara, who torments him with an Irish brogue, lacerating him about his heritage and hers, which the “Major” despises, yet is his salvation, for it grounds him in decency. Sara and Nora are the bane of his existence and likewise they are his redemption. If only he could embrace his heritage which the “scum” friends who populate his bar would appreciate. If only he could destroy the ghost of the man he once was, Major Cornelius Melody, who had a valiant and philandering past, serving under the eventually exalted Duke of Wellington.
Through the discussions of Jamie Cregan with Mick Maloy (James Russell), we learn that the “Major identity” caused Con to be thrown out of the British military and forced him to avoid disgrace by settling in America with Nora and Sara. We see it causes his decline into alcoholism, destroys his resolve and purpose in life, and dissipates him mentally. It is the image of pretension that caused the bad judgment to be swindled by the Yankee liar who sold him the unproductive Inn. Sadly, that image is the force encouraging the insulting, emotional monster that abuses his wife and daughter. And it is a negative example for Sara who treats him as a blowhard, tyrant fool to vengefully ridicule and excoriate about his class chauvinism, preening airs and economic excesses (he keeps a mare to look grand while riding). It is the Major’s persona which brings them to the brink of poverty.
The turning point that pushes Con over the edge comes in the form of a woman he believes he can steal a kiss from, Deborah Hartford, the same woman whose intentions are against Sara and her son Simon Hartford falling in love. Without considering who this visiting woman might be, Con assumes the Major’s pretenses and we see first hand how Con “operates” with the ladies. His romanticism awkwardly emerges, left over from his philandering days with women who fell like dominoes under his charms. He is forward with Hartford who visits to survey the disaster her son Simon has befallen, under the spell of Sara’s charms, behavior not unlike Con’s. The scene is both comical and foreboding. From this point on, the events move with increasing risk to the climactic, fireworks of the ending.
As Deborah Hartford, Mary McCann pulls out all the stops in a performance which is grandly comical and real, with moment to moment specificity and detail. When Con attempts to thrust his kiss upon her, there were gasps from the audience because she is a prim Yankee woman of the upper classes who would find Con’s behavior low class and demeaning. That he “misses” the signs of who she is further proves his bad judgment. Sara is appalled and Nora, not jealous, makes excuses for him satisfying herself. The scene is beautifully handled by the actors with pauses and pacing to maximum effect.
McCann’s interaction with Aykroyd’s Sara is especially ironic. Deborah Hartford’s speech about the Hartford family male ideals of freedom and lazy liberty that forced the Hartford women to embrace their husbands’ notions by taking up the slave trade is hysterical. As she mildly ridicules Simon’s dreams to be a poet and write a book about freedom from oppressive, nullifying social values, she warns Sara against him. It is humorous that Sara doesn’t understand what she implies. Obviously, Deborah Hartford suspects Sara is a gold digger so she is laying tracks to run her own train over any match Sara and her son would attempt to make. After discovering the economically challenged, demeaned Melody family, Hartford informs her husband who sends in his man to settle with the Melodys.
Together McCann and Aykroyd provide the dynamic that sets up the disastrous events to follow. Clearly, Sara is more determined than ever to marry Simon and as the night progresses, she seals their love relationship with Nora’s blessing, until Nora understands that her daughter walks in her own footsteps in the same direction that she went with Con. Unlike Nora, however, Sara is not ashamed of her actions.
O’Neill’s superb play explores Con’s past and its arc to the present, revealing a dissipated character at the end of his rope. Wallowing in the Major’s ghostly image, Con vows to answer Mr. Hartford’s insult of sending Nicholas Gadsby (John C. Vennema looks and acts every inch the part), to buy off Sara’s love for Simon and prevent their marriage. After having his friends throw out the loudly protesting Gadsby, Con and Jamie Cregan go to the Hartfords to uphold the Major’s honor in a duel. Nora waits and fears for him and in a touching scene when Sara and Nora share their intimacies of love, Nora explains that her love brings her self-love and self-affirmation. Sara agrees with her mother over what she has found with Simon. The actors are marvelous in this intimate, revelatory scene.
The last fifteen minutes of the production represent acting highpoints by Cuccioli, Forbes, Aykroyd and Murray. When Con returns alive but beaten and vanquished, we acknowledge the Major’s identity smashed, as Con sardonically laughs at himself, a finality. With the Major’s death comes the hope of a renewal. Finally, Con shows an appreciation of his Irish heritage as he kisses Nora, a redemptive, affirming action.
O’Neill satisfies in this marvelous production. The playwright’s ironic twists and Con’s ultimate affirmation of the foundations of his soul is as uplifting as it is cathartic and beautiful. Nora’s love for Con has finally blossomed with the expiation of the Irishman. It is Sara who must adjust to this new reality to redefine her relationship with her father and reevaluate her expectation of their lives together. The road she has chosen, like her mother’s, is hard and treacherous with only her estimation of love to propel her onward.
From Con’s entrance to the conclusion of Irish Repertory Theatre’s shining revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, presented online during the pandemic and now live in its mesmerizing glory, we commit to these characters’ fall and rise. Ciarán O’Reilly has shepherded the sterling actors to inhabit the characters’ passion with breathtaking moment, made all the more compelling live with audience response and feeling. The production was superbly wrought on film in October of 2020. See my review https://caroleditosti.com/2020/10/30/a-touch-of-the-poet-the-irish-repertory-theatres-superb-revival-of-eugene-oneills-revelation-of-class-in-america/
Now, in its peak form, it is award worthy. Clearly, this O’Neill version is incomparable, and O’Reilly and the actors have exceeded expectations of this play which has been described as not one of O’Neill’s best. However, the production turns that description on its head. If you enjoy O’Neill and especially if you aren’t a fan of this most American and profound of playwrights, you must see the Irish Rep presentation. It is not only accessible, vibrant and engaging, it deftly explores the playwright’s acute themes and conflicts. Indeed, in Poet we see that 1)classism creates personal trauma; 2)disassociation from one’s true identity fosters the incapacity to maintain economic well being. And in one of the themes O’Neill revisits in his all of his works, we recognize the inner soul struggles that manifest in self-recrimination which must be confronted and resolved.
Kudos to the creative team for their superb efforts: Charlie Corcoran (scenic design), Alejo Vietti & Gail Baldoni (costume design), Michael Gottlieb (lighting design), M. Florian Staab (sound design), Ryan Rumery (original music), Brandy Hoang Collier (properties), Robert-Charles Vallance (hair & wig design).
For tickets and times to the Irish Repertory Company’s A Touch of the Poet, go to their website: https://irishrep.org/show/2021-2022-season/a-touch-of-the-poet-3/
What do William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, AE, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore and Katharine Tynan have in common? Their initials are carved on a tree growing on the property of Coole Park, Gort, in County Galway, the estate Lady Gregory inherited after the death of her husband Sir William Henry Gregory.
That is just one of the tidbits told by the spirit of Lady Gregory (1852-1932) who inhabits the production Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until the 22nd of March. Written by Lady Augusta Gregory with additional material by Ciarán O’Reilly and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, the delightful production reveals the life and times of one of the venerable, wry-humored progenitors of the Irish Literary Revival and co- founder of The Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn.
The production stars Úna Clancy as the lively and candid Lady Gregory who fills out another role in Lady Gregory’s play “McDonough’s Wife at the end of Act II. James Russell portrays a variety of roles and is the humorous Mike McInerney in Lady Gregory’s, “Workhouse Ward” and the Sheep shearer in “McDonough’s Wife.” Russell is erudite and reserved in his portrayal of the philosophical literary genius, poet, playwright William Butler Yeats. And he is the kindly, avuncular Sir William Gregory who was Lady Gregory’s senior by thirty-five years.
We learn they had a son Robert, the pride of their lives whose death Robert mystically foreshadowed in a dream which his cousin also mysteriously had. He died during WWI in a play crash in a death which his mother like any devoted mother never could reconcile easily. Sir William Gregory attempted to practice noblesse oblige for the suffering Irish people under his care at a time when it was least appreciated. And his actions Lady Gregory implies were mischaracterized and reshaped to satisfy another agenda.
Terry Donnelly of the lyrical voice, spot-on authenticity and versatility portrays Anne Horniman friend of the literary lights who helped fund the Irish National Theatre Society. Terry Donnelly also portrays Mary Sheridan, Lady Gregory’s influential, native-speaking Irish nanny who teaches her about the history and folklore of the area. Donnelly constantly surprises with her characterizations as Honor Donohoe in Gregory’s “Workhouse Ward,” and portrayals of Widow Quin, the Narrator, Marian and the character of the Hag 1 in “McDonough’s Wife.”
John Keating rounds out this exceptional ensemble with versatility and humor portraying notaries Wilfred Blunt, Edward Martyn, John Quinn, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. He is hysterical and nuanced as Michael Miskell the down-and-out companion of Mike McInerney who wheedles McInerney to remain in impoverishment when he might have stayed with his well-off sister Honor Donohoe (Terry Donnelly). And he is the poignant and raging McDonough who returns from his journeys to discover that the townspeople have eschewed his wife as an “outsider.” Their rejection is particularly loathsome because she dies in childbirth and no one in the xenophobic community wishes to join together to memorialize her passing or help bury her. Dark are Lady G’s themes of bigotry, alienation, shame and guilt in the revelatory “McDonough’s Wife.”
The personification of the Irish literary greats and the effect of their productions (the story of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is particularly acute and ironic) is fascinating. Their discussions reveal the history of the period memorably with gusto. Gregory’s emblematic presence delivered with good will by Clancy makes the narrative of Lady Gregory’s life ring with truth.
This production is many things: a historical encomium, a mini-revival of Irish playwrights, an affirmation and revisiting of that vital Irish literary renaissance in the early twentieth century and beyond. Importantly, it is a celebration of a woman who accomplished much for Irish theater and cemented the connections between Ireland and the United States, something which Americans need to be reminded of.
The added material by O’Reilly with Lady Gregory’s own words from her autobiography and published journals and from insightful articles by professors and researchers into the amazing time, O’Reilly cobbles together thoughtfully and humorously. The actors enliven the true to life artists, but O’Reilly’s narrative spoken by Gregory with various quotes from real personages coheres dramatically so that the audience remains engaged.
Critically, O’Reilly adds the two productions written by Lady Gregory which reveal her breadth and scope from humorous dialogue and conflict in “The Workhouse,” (finely engendered by director and actors) to the reality of the isolation and xenophobia of the the community where “MDonough’s Wife” takes place. The drama of the latter reflective of the bigotry of isolated communities regarding anyone from another social spectrum i.e. their inability to embrace with Christian grace “the other” has currency for us today. Gregory hit upon a strain of the human condition that is pernicious and seems everpresent despite the hope of religion to expurgate it.
I thought the set was functional and symbolic; the dark green walls with nooks and crannies was where actors sat in character waiting to add their portrayals to the grand stew that was being created. Seamlessly, the set afforded them the opportunity to don costumes secreted there so that they could quickly step into the 22 roles the four actors portrayed with authenticity. The inclusion of the tree with the famous initials of Yeats, et. al and the music, lighting and sound effects added to the production’s appeal.
Clancy’s natural rapport with the audience is expertly directed and developed. The idea to incorporate Lady Gregory’s ritual practice of distributing a Barm Brack to her cast and the audience was fun. The cast distributed the Barm Brack (the delicious fruitcake was moister and less adamantine than the one my Irish-American aunt made) to us. It was a perfect treat after the humorous, ironic conclusion of “Workshouse Ward,” at the end of Act I.
This production is a gem and I do think that educationally it needs to find an audience because of its revelations and historical grist regarding Irish literary history. Above all it is a memorialization and celebration of Lady Gregory, her works, her amazing friends. And, if you like, you may consider taking a trip to the West Country of Ireland to visit Coole Park. There, you will still see the walled garden and “The Autograph Tree” with the initials of Sean O’Casey, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, AE and others, and be able to imagine a time when these writers enjoyed a unique camaraderie and received sustenance for their souls in a little piece of heaven on earth.
Noted are the creative team: Charlie Corcoran (set design) David Toser (costume Design) Michael O’Connor (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design).
Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory runs with 1 intermission at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th) until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Dublin Carol by Conor McPherson directed with just the right tone and irony by Ciarán O’Reilly is a seminal play about the spirit of Christmas that is bestowed upon the principal character John, superbly portrayed by Jeffrey Bean. McPherson chooses this self-hating alcoholic protagonist to reflect humanity’s hope of redemption from broken promises, regrets and soul sins lathered with guilt and remorse.
McPherson’s John, like many, reveals an overarching longing for change from the boredom of self-loathing, loneliness and recriminations. During the course of the play we see how the playwright elucidates that such change never happens quickly, but does come with subtle, gradual almost unnoticeable shifts when least expected. In John’s instance it is the visit from his daughter Mary (Sarah Street) whom he hasn’t seen in ten years that fans the flames that have been ignited by his boss the mortician Noel who saved him from one stage of himself. When she comes to tell him about the condition of his wife, her mother whom he abandoned long ago, the conversation prompts his movement to admit his miserable state when he left the family. He was in hell.
Above all McPherson’s work is about love and forgiveness. Such love is given by John’s daughter. And it is an irony that John is so over-bloated with guilt and remorse that he cannot forgive himself and thinks himself completely unworthy of it. But it is her expression of love and respect (she admits she also hates him) that helps him make a final determination. The decision moves him toward a kind and thoughtful resolution with his family which by the end of the play portends a new door will open in John’s life that may lift him up from his self-hatred into self-forgiveness.
Though the setting is Dublin Christmastime, in the office of a funeral parlor where life and death sit side by side, the title references a widow Carol who lived in Dublin that John mentions he had a long-time affair with. The title also alludes to a Carol as a song heralding the good news of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Of course, Christ’s birth symbolizes that redemption, reformation, forgiveness and love are possible for the great and small and even someone as “rotten” as John perceives himself to be.
The characterizations are drawn clearly and we become engaged in the simple interactions between Mark (Cillian Hegarty) and John in the first segment, John and his daughter Mary in the second and John and Mark in the third. The arc of development grows out of these interactions and the nature of the conversations which become more revelatory and intimate bring about a change in John’s character.
As Mark and John sit down for tea and a respite from their labors assisting Mark’s sick Uncle Noel (a mortician) with the external arrangements of a young person’s funeral while Noel is in the hospital, we first learn about John and a bit about the twenty-year-old Mark. John shares his self-perceptions and generally blames his lack of discipline and care for his family because of alcohol. He enjoys drinking. But when Mark’s Uncle Noel gave him a job to help in the office with the funerals, John’s life improved and he lifted himself up from the bad state he was in when Noel met him.
John’s character grows on us because he holds little back and digs down into the depths of his self-loathing in each segment, taking off on a racetrack in his confession and heart-to-heart with daughter Mary to whom he apologizes for his miserable treatment and abandonment of the family. It is clear that there was no physical harm. Indeed, his own father beat his mother and John does not follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, he lands on the fact that he didn’t stop his father and was a coward and felt self-hatred for selfishly, brutally not intervening because he feared getting beaten along with his mother.
However, even after John apologizes profusely for his behavior to Mary, he knows it isn’t enough. Clearly, he despises himself and wishes he could erase the memory of who he is along with his former identity and behaviors with his family. The self-disgust moves him to say he wishes he had never been born. Of course the more he admits fault, and makes such profound declarations, the more we identify with him and find his authenticity human, real and poignant. Jeffrey Bean is truly adroit in the role. He strikes all the notes clearly. He manifests John’s self-disgust with the nuance that John longs to be a different person, but is afraid he will let himself down by letting his family down once more.
For their part Mary and Mark become John’s sounding boards, yet he clearly engages them and asks about their lives. When he discovers the news that Mary brings and the subsequent request that goes with it, the situation becomes a way that he can make up for his behavior in the past. He and Mary confess each other’s faults to one another, an important step toward forgiveness. But can John trust himself to do the right thing and stick to his decision? The irony is this: if he fulfills the request he will have to confront his past with the one he most abused and hurt, his wife from whom he never obtained a divorce. His guilt is overwhelming!
As his daughter leaves with the understanding that John will go with her to visit her mother who is dying, she importunes him not to drink any more and to be ready at a later time when she will drive him to the hospital. Of course, flashing lights go on. It is as if the request to not drink triggers John with perverse reverse psychology. The segment closes leaving John contemplating what to do. To drink? To make it up to his wife, daughter and son? Or just to escape somewhere out of their reach?
At the top of the third segment we discover John caves to self-loathing and guilt. He has been celebrating “Christmas.” Mark interrupts him only to discover John was too overwhelmed with drink to pick up his money at the bank. During the course of their interchange, John lays down a rant which is pure McPherson replete with irony and sardonic humor as he relates how his affair with Carol and her unconditional love drove him to the end of himself and the dregs of barrels of alcohol. At this point it is apparent, especially when he begins to put away the Christmas decorations that he has no intention of making it up to his family or going with his daughter. He is back to square one and will be on another bender and into the abyss without Noel to save him a second time.
McPherson’s characterizations and themes are spot-on. Throughout, this work is filled with dark humor which resonates in truthfulness. And in the hands of Jeffrey Bean guided by O’Reilly, the ironies spill out with fervor, especially in the last section of the play when John attempts to counsel Mark not to feel guilty about ending it with his girlfriend. John’s groveling diatribe about the stages of his drunks is also humorous. But the confession and John’s setting a terrible example for Mark does both characters good. Hearing the pain and misery of the stages of drunkenness would give anyone pause about drinking to oblivion.
The ensemble work is tight and O’Reilly keeps the production resonating with the wisdom and revelations that McPherson suggests in his themes. Kudos to the creative team who bring it all together: Charlie Corcoran (scenic design) Leon Dobkowski (costume design) Michael Gottlieb (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design) Ryan Rumery (original music).
See Dublin Carol for the uplifting performances in this subtle and different McPherson work. It is running at Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd St between 6th and 7th) with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: CLICK HERE.
Sean O’Casey’s compelling The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first play of his Dublin Trilogy, has been selected by the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “send off” to introduce their Sean O’Casey Season which has been running from January 30 and will continue through May 25,2019. The first play of the O’Casey Cycle is presented in repertory along with O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars on the Irish Rep’s main stage (132 West 22nd Street).
The plays of the trilogy take place during three pivotal and violent confrontations between Ireland and the United Kingdom: The Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921); The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) and The Easter Rising (April 24-29, 1916). These wars led to the Republic of Ireland achieving independence from the United Kingdom. However the tribal wounds and ferocious heartbreak and resentments incurred centuries ago that exploded into these wars and ended in an uncertain peace, still abide to this day.
The Irish Rep has chosen to celebrate its 30th anniversary by featuring O’Casey’s trilogy which chronicles the impact of dire events on the impoverished tenement dwellers of Dublin who were often the casualties of war. Revisiting the plays remains important for our time because as O’Casey highlights the effects of division and internecine hatreds, he raises questions about the nature of freedom, sacrifice, art, nationalism, Republicanism and more. Always in the background is the price average individuals are “willing” to pay to achieve self-governance and negotiate the political power plays of forces, organizations and governments not readily understandable nor controllable.
The Shadow of a Gunman ably and concisely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly to achieve O’Casey’s maximum intended effect has as its setting Dublin during the Irish War of Independence (see dates above). The largely guerilla warfare campaigns encompassed brutal clashes between the IRA (referred to as the Old IRA today) appointed as the enforcers of Irish Independence, and many former British WWI veterans known as the “Black and Tans.” These British military units were “volunteered” by England to safeguard Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. However, their undisciplined and harsh tactics exacerbated the conflicts so that repeated incidents of bloodshed and devastation were wrecked upon Dublin society by the IRA and the British military.
How the innocent tenement dwellers of Dublin suffer for the price of a freedom and economic independence that largely remains beyond them is brilliantly chronicled by O’Casey. And indeed, through the excellent work of the ensemble and shepherding of the fine performances by Ciarán O’Reilly, we experience the ironic tragicomedy of happenstance and the true terror of being caught between two ranging enemies who do not care who is swept up in the brutality or destroyed.
The comedy resides largely in the human interactions of the residents of a rooming house and how they present themselves as they negotiate their own political positions and participation or lack of interest in effecting a free Ireland. One central irony is that they underestimate the danger of the warfare that surrounds them until it is too late. In their naivete they assume that struggling writer and poet Donal Davoren (James Russell in a sensitive, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal) is a member of the IRA and the titular “gunman” of the play.
Davoren, who has newly arrived to the boarding house and is the roommate of Seumus Shields (the humorous, hapless and unwitting Michael Mellamphy whose cowardice is recognizable and empathetic) is treated with dignity and great respect by the other residents. Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy renders a feisty, sweet and charming portrait of innocence and bravery) especially finds Donal irresistible for she is enamored of the romantic notions of heroism and courage that gunman fighting for a free Ireland display. Of course, the irony O’Casey delivers in blow after blow by the end of the play dispels everyone’s romantic notions of freedom fighters. And we are reminded that dying for freedom and liberty are propaganda, especially when there is a shortage of brave and courageous souls who are willing to take risks facing off against a loaded gun.
O’Casey presents the issues and themes immediately. He introduces the Everyman’s perspective which many of the renters embrace, particularly Mellamphy’s Shields. And the playwright fronts that view against the poet/philosopher’s pacifist view of Donal Davoren whom the renters believe to be with the IRA. The irony, if followed to its absurd conclusion in O’Casey’s plot, rings with horrific truth, considering the results and follow-through of their beliefs about him.
Meanwhile, discounting their attitudes about, yet slyly thinking to capture Minnie’s heart by saying little, to Shields Donal beats his breast and cries of the miseries and pains of being a poet. He rails against the commoners for whom he creates his art to little effect. Through him O’Casey reveals an ironic addendum. For all the angst and pain artists go through to create the beauties of art and literature, the works may or may not assert a place of importance in the hearts of citizens in a time of war. (Is O’Casey perhaps being sardonic about the importance of his own work through this character’s mewlings?)
Director O’Reilly gives attention to each of these characters. In his rendition of Casey’s work, we understand that they represent symbolic types in the human panoply of characters that manifest the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who inhabit every society in the throes of violent revolutionary change.
All of them reveal in one way or another the flaws that contribute to the tragedy that occurs by the play’s end. For example the kowtowing, gossiping Tommy Owens (Ed Malone in a humorous turn) exemplifies the toady and hypocrite who brings on the trouble. The alcoholic and abusive husband Mr. Grigson screams out his position as an “Orangeman” sympathetic to the opposite side. John Keating manages to be sincere in his drunkenness and hysterical to boot. However, we note another side of him when Mr. Grigson and Shields swap stories of their bravery in the face of the British, who in actuality frighten them out of their wits. Only Donal remains silent and renders himself invisible in the face of terror. Though the lying bravado is typically understandable, it is also cringe-worthy. For men should be stronger, should they not? O’Casey smashes this notion by the play’s end with a resounding exclamation point which this production succeeds in spearing through our hearts and minds.
Terry Donnelly as the long-suffering Mrs. Grigson delivers a superbly heartfelt, broken and poignant portrayal that takes us into a tragedy that we will remember long after the lights come up. Most importantly, the second act thrums with rapid pacing, suspense and “edge-of-your-seat” fear. We empathize with the Dubliners throughout the experience O’Reilly and the company put us through as they moment-to-moment envelop us with the emotion and horror of unfolding events in real time.
This immediacy is a vital element of O’Casey’s work and the ensemble and the production team render it superbly. For it is the terrifying experience that delivers our epiphany of what the historic Dubliners went through and what occupying troops in Syria and Yemen put innocents through today. The civilians are gun fodder for wars they have not willingly signed on for. Surely, they do not anticipate their lives threatened and lifestyles destroyed by both sides of the warring factions on streets and in homes where children once played and all was safe and secure. Surely, they do not choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of becoming an escaping refugee or staying to be numbered among the dead or disappeared. It was so in Ireland, then, it is so in wars that dot our planet and fuel defense manufacturers’ profits today.
As O’Casey reveals most acutely in the action conveyed by the actors, designers and director of this production, this is THE TERROR. And as the characters experience the horror, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the oppression and tyranny from both sides, we experience it as well. The tragedy becomes that all who are present as witnesses become the accountable participants and they must live with the regrets imprinted on their souls until they are washed away, if ever.
Kudos to all in the acting ensemble who contribute to making this a soul-sonorous production. Kudos to the design team: Charlie Corcoran (scenic), Linda Fisher & David Toser (costume) Michael Gottlieb (lighting) Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab (sound) Ryan Rumery (original music).
This is a must-see, especially if you are unfamiliar with Shadow of a Gunman which runs with one intermission. The production is a wonderful introduction to Sean O’Casey and if you have been a forever fan, you will be very pleased. Additionally, the Irish Rep in celebration of the playwright is conducting free readings, symposiums, lectures, film screenings and music exhibitions. For more information on the Sean O’Casey Cycle and for tickets to the Dublin Trilogy, check the website.