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.
The Gingold Theatrical Group noted for its Shaw productions is presenting Caesar & Cleopatra directed by David Staller at Theatre Row. The production is a tightly crafted, well-acted revelation of the historic and intriguing relationship as Shaw conceives may have unfolded between Cleopatra and Caesar. Having thoroughly researched their history to examine both their humanity and extraordinary genius, with economy, Shaw reveals individuals worthy of his depiction in interest, humor and vitality.
The production shepherded by Staller winningly presents the dynamic relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra which engages us with Shaw’s novel/fictional approach toward these icons as he generally follows historical events. The Gingold Theatrical Group has slimmed down Shaw’s version keeping the most salient scenes and consolidating characters providing narration by Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton in a powerful performance) at the beginning of the production and throughout to fast-forward events and comment on their sequence with poetic persuasion.
Caesar is portrayed by Robert Cuccioli whose presence and manner is believably confident, relaxed and princely even after the exhaustion of having just led his troops to conquer the Egyptians. However, knowing anything about Caesar before Shaw’s revelations at this point in the leader’s life, one realizes his personage that was incredible in stature and nobility was acquired over time. His popularity as a leader was grounded upon his military experience and wisdom bringing success to Rome in extending the Roman Empire. Cuccioli acutely engages as he renders this portrait of a man who doesn’t believe himself past his prime. As Shaw has drawn him and as Cuccioli so aptly portrays him, he sports humor, is playful yet has the perspicacity to note that the vivacious, lively teenage girl at the feet of the Sphinx must be Cleopatra, though he twits her about it after he realizes who she is.
Nevertheless, Caesar astutely withholds his identity, takes charge, and gains her confidence using her information to apprise himself of the situation. With his non-threatening, non-egotistical, down-to-earth demeanor, Cuccioli’s good-humored Caesar sets the very human rules of his budding relationship with Cleopatra which will serve him in stead as he fulfills his plans to set her on the throne of Egypt and further extend the acquisition of Egyptian lands under the control of Rome. Their’s is friendship, a mentorship, and an affectionate liaison which largely remains political in scope as the life and death stakes are high for both of them. It is a union which is beautifully drawn by Shaw and credibly acted by Lim and Cuccioli.
For her part, Teresa Avia Lim’s Cleopatra follows the arc of development that Shaw has delineated for her, revealing her growth from a child who is reckless and afraid, to a Queen tutored by Caesar in her bearing, wisdom and commanding presence. The scenes between Cleopatra and Caesar are the most fascinating, and Cuccioli and Lim authentically portray the concern, affection and nobility of both individuals as they tug at each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As Lim’s Cleopatra learns how to perceive herself a Queen and believe it fully, Caesar guides her to this end yet is warily empowered to overcome the dangers of the civil strife that threatens in Egypt in the rivalry between Ptolemy and Cleopatra for the throne and the betrayal of Romans who have been compromised by Egyptian leaders.
Ptolemy (humorously effected as a puppet of Pothinus) and Pothinus are the villains in Shaw’s work. Perhaps, Rajesh Bose as Pothinus/Ptolemy is too unctuous and oily to empathize with. However, Cuccioli’s Caesar remains respectful and accommodating lifting Pothinus’ stature, however, annoyed, enraged and jealous Cleopatra is of him as her brother’s controller and representative.
As supporting players Rufio (Jeff Applegate) Britannus (Jonathan Hadley) and Apollodorus (Dan Domingues) provide action and sometimes comic relief in furthering the events when Caesar must grapple with the Egyptians, settle for a time at the lighthouse of Pharos, bring Cleopatra in a carpet to him and eventually swim away from the island to save themselves from the Egyptians who are in fast pursuit until a Roman boat rescues them. The adventures continue as they stand up to the Egyptians because of Cleopatra’s actions in killing a favorite and the annoyed Caesar must sustain the fallout as he and his men keep counsel and strategize after realizing the siblings hatred for each other in a dual rulership will never work.
The scene when Caesar chides Cleopatra for her lack of clemency is thematically sound and a highpoint of the production along with the various scenes of action. We note Caesar’s wisdom and strength to pardon his enemies and convert them to friends, ignoring looking at incriminating letters Ptolemy has written. Caesar as a man of action with better things to do scorns wasting his time with prosecutions, preferring negotiation and the softer touch to co-opt those who can most do him harm. This is a strength which Cleopatra finds difficulty believing in or duplicating with her own brother and his followers.
When Roman reinforcements save the day and Caesar prepares to depart, he promises Cleopatra he will send Mark Antony to her and the rest is “history.” Caesar has proven to be an exceptional tutor in politics and power and Cleopatra has learned as much as her personality will allow. Interestingly, we see the seeds of destruction for both individuals in this play. That Caesar does not wipe out his enemies comes back to haunt him, for the conspirators he pardoned (Cassius, et. al) end up assassinating him.
Cleopatra’s yearning for Antony to be with her (a major flaw in her character is her loneliness) ends up destroying their love and bringing their downfall after Mark Antony does follow Caesar’s bidding to go to Egypt and check on the territory that is under Rome. Shaw plants the seeds of this weakness in Cleopatra at the outset of the play and reveals she never quite overcomes this need which is manifest in her searching for Caesar’s attentions which he can never fully give her because he is too involved in military actions and governing wisely or guiding others to govern wisely without malice and revenge.
This amazing relationship that Shaw has drawn concludes with the only kiss that we see. Caesar gently delivers it to Cleopatra’s forehead and claims he will never see her again. At that Ftatateeta sends the audience out into the night with a rejoinder of peace.
Kudos to the cast who is committed to fine ensemble work and the director who guided them to it. Kudos also goes to the creative team whose efforts assisted in elucidating Shaw’s themes and incredible characterizations. These include: Brian Prather (scenic design) Tracy Christensen (costume design) Jamie Roderick (lighting design) Frederick Kennedy (sound design).
Caesar & Cleopatra runs with one intermission at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) until 12th October. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.