A prolific writer renowned as a master playwright, Brian Friel created over 30 works for the stage, many of which appeared on Broadway. Among them are Aristocrats (1979), Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). Last year the Irish Repertory Theatre premiered Friel’s The Home Place (2005) with triumphant success.
In the Irish Rep’s current presentation of Two by Friel directed by Conor Bagley, we experience Friel’s deft plot development, incisive dialogue, profound treatment of themes. We witness his comprehension of the human condition and his adroit skill in weaving it into memorable dramas. Friel wrote Lovers: Winners (1967) and The Yalta Game (2001) decades apart. But in texture, artistry, poignance, structure, and theme, each echoes with heartbreak and hope. Both stir our own remembrance of things past and draw us close to the immutable and ineffable in human nature.
The two plays reflect disparate times, places, and considerations. One takes place in Ireland, the other in Yalta and Russia. The protagonists of Lovers: Winners are teenagers. In The Yalta Game, Dmitry and Anna have been around and know the score, each married with obligations and responsibilities. However, the excellent Bagley has made the plays cohere with a clever bridge, lightly securing them with a narrative device. Their similarity of themes, symbols and overarching concepts thus becomes evident. Reflecting ideas about love, imagination, longing, and fulfillment, the protagonists in both seek a soulful unity, with poignant conclusions both profound and elusive.
In this 50th anniversary production of Lovers: Winners, two omniscient narrators (Aiden Redmond, Jenny Leona) identify the protagonists, Joe (the effervescent Phil Gillen) and Mag (his worthy counterpart in Aoife Kelly). The interactions between the teenagers occur on a hillock overlooking their village. There they study for O-level examinations, after which they will possibly attend University. From their exchanges we note their carefree youthfulness, playfulness, verve, and keen hopes for the future. They will be married in a few weeks to sanctify Mag’s pregnancy. Through their conversation Friel relays key information about their backgrounds, which each uses as a hammer to clobber or manipulate the other in a weird combination of self-defense and allurement.
That theirs is an immature, tempestuous, passionate relationship is clear from their games and teasing, which also clarify their respective ambitions. Joe intends to surmount his father’s gambling addiction and inability to hold down a job. Not only has he managed to get rooms for them, eschewing Mag’s more well-off parents’ help. He also expresses his hope to go to London to college.
For her part, Mag’s only concern is Joe, whom she adores. We understand that Joe means more to her than her own life. So when she bombards him with frivolous chatter while he studies, we get that she desperately wants his attention. However, we empathize with Joe. He wants her to “shut up” so he can achieve good grades for college and their future.
The ensuing arguments and pushback indicate their marriage will probably have more than its share of strife and trouble. Though Mag teases him by implying that she doesn’t want to become like a certain woman, who every time she had a baby, deteriorated into blindness, deafness, etc., her fears about children aging her make sense. From their wrangling we appreciate that this pair is just out of childhood, with all of the unfulfilled aspirations of youthful love.
As the scene plays out on the hilltop, Friel momentarily shifts to the narrators a few times, establishing their overall knowledge of the protagonists. They view the soon-to-be-wed teenagers objectively as case studies. At first we do not realize their purpose because Friel ingeniously flashes forward in time – the scenes between Joe and Mag take place in the past. In an unusual twist the narrators make predictions about the couple, but because the key action occurs with the teenagers, we do not heed the narrators’ brief commentary. Ever-present throughout, they sit in silence downstage left and right and let the teens’ togetherness unfold in the past. The couple’s energy, vitality, and affection induce us to forget the narrators are there.
The flashback progresses. Joe attempts to study. Mag twits him, and they argue, slinging insults in self-defense. Joe accuses Mag of coercing him to marry her because of the baby. But he did agree because he cares for her. Meanwhile, Mag twits him about his mother’s employment as a charwoman, the near sole support of the family.
As Friel discloses the deeper aspects of their characters with adroit skill, we become engrossed in Joe and Mag’s profane behaviors. The deeper Friel digs, the more we question the sustained happiness of their future marriage. Their dynamic of pushback appears to be a bittersweet game of passive-aggression, insult, then reconciliation. When Mag admits her parents no longer sleep together, implying they do not make love, her observation carries personal meaning. Will their own marriage be loving throughout? Or will it be fraught with troubles like their parents’ marriage? Will their dreams crash and burn? Did ours?
Despite the narrators’ presence and commentary, we continue to be caught up in the intrigue of Joe and Mag. As in life and human nature, we prefer dramatic realities that characters we identify with create for themselves and each other, oblivious to future happenstance. That happenstance remains opaque, distant, immaterial, until…
The inevitable happens. Friel lulls us so we are not quite ready when the narrators suggest the two have gone missing. Friel staggers the time elements. The scene shifts from the narrators’ flashforward to the flashback of the couple still on the hill. When we see them (two or three hours beforehand), enjoying themselves in the hot sun, we become conflicted. And the full realization hits us. Joe and Mag’s ignorance of their future may destroy them. Indeed, all human nature reeks of the same ignorance.
Though we remain caught up in Joe and Mag’s interactions, the narrators apprise us of the mystery about them. We wonder why and what has happened. Yet we enjoy watching the two on the hillside cavorting happily. Ironically, gradually, we know the end from the beginning, for the omniscient narrators unemotionally tell us. However, like Mag and Joe before the narrators’ concluding talk, we somehow remain lost between flashforward and flashback. We become like ghosts looking for comfort and a way out of the finality.
In the New York Premiere of The Yalta Game, the superb Aiden Redmond’s Dmitry immediately elicits our affection. With his good will and confessional, intimate tone Redmond inhabits Dmitry with gusto and understanding. Redmond exquisitely transitions from the indifferent narrator in Lovers: Winners into the affable Dmitry who flashes back to reveal a pivotal story in his life. As he moves from his post on stage right in Lovers: Winners, he dons the mantle of the urbane, warm, humorous, quick-witted Dmitry. Antithetical to the previous narrator, charming Dmitry hooks the audience like fish on a longline with the bait of his grace, ingenious imagination, and charm.
He confides that he enjoys playing The Yalta Game, an intellectual pastime of all the Europeans who sit drinking coffees in the square. The gist of the game is to make up witty stories about the travelers on holiday dressed pointedly as their identities suggest. But one must keep the stories to oneself. That Dmitry shares them indicates he views himself, rather as his own case study but with an ironic tone. During the course of his humorous revelations about others, we note his stories define a lot about him. Also, we discover the stories are fairly accurate for his astute comprehension of human nature and intuitive pluck scans people like an electronic device.
When his scanner alights upon the beautiful, younger and unaffected Anna (Jenny Leona inhabits Anna with grace and inner beauty), he accurately identifies her marriage and other details. Dissolving the line between friendliness and a stranger’s welcome aloofness, he engages Anna in a harmless, playful conversation. We enjoy watching how the apparently innocent-minded Anna slowly becomes enthralled with Dmitry, who disarms her with his prowess at making conquests. Slowly, by minute calculations, jokes, and his own brand of sophisticated particularity, he manipulates her with savvy adorableness into a consensual affair. Apparently, this comes as naturally to him as his ingenious charm at winning over the audience in his opening remarks.
However, in empathy with Anna we become circumspect about his intentions. He spends money on her and takes her to the area’s beauties. Finally, we pin his type to the wall of definition. He must be a cad. We intuit the ending from the beginning. But when Anna endearingly berates herself as the fallen woman who has lost his respect, her ingenuousness overcomes his artfulness. All masks are off.
It is Friel’s wonderful irony that Dmitry, expert at the Yalta game, has miscalculated his target’s vulnerability. She has flipped the game, reversed the tables without design, and quite simply enraptured him. Surprisingly, for him and us, he and Anna find themselves desperately in love. From charming, debonair, lascivious married rake, he becomes the smitten, monogamous lover-philosopher. Friel’s witty dialogue between the couple married to others crackles with irony and sage humor.
Overcoming our imagination and even his own, Dmitry’s charm becomes immeasurable in his grace-filled moments with Anna. And we become drawn in by his philosophical revelations, which indicate how this experience of deeper love is changing him. Indeed, his authentic life at work and with family becomes illusory, meaningless. The only living, vital reality becomes Anna, especially after she returns to minister to her husband who is ill.
The separation and remembrance of love burns their memories and disintegrates their lives with their spouses. Though Anna has said a forever goodbye to Dmitry and he to her, compelled by longing for their own truth together they reunite. But how long can their impossible love continue? Both know it must end.
How Begley fashions and melds the two plays together just takes one’s breath away. The acting ensemble is extraordinary. Shepherded by Bagley, his economically staged direction enhances their creation of life and ineffable soulfulness. Indeed, Bagley does his hero Friel justice in these superlative renderings.
Kudos go to the economic set design by Daniel Prosky, the functionality of China Lee’s costumes, the lighting design by Michael O’Connor, and the sound design and music by Ryan Rumery. Two by Friel runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre with one intermission until 23 December. Bagley’s meld of Friel’s superb Lovers: Winners and The Yalta Game is a must-see. Tickets are available at the Irish Repertory Theatre website.
Has there ever been a more elegant, erudite and riotously funny clown prince of theater than Bill Irwin? Not only has the Tony Award winner mastered the innards of pacing, rhythm, mime, body visualizations and timing of the comedic. Irwin writes, directs, acts. What does he not do well theatrically and dramatically? In what he attempts, Irwin delights. In his On Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Irwin examines the opaque and timeless works of Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett. What an exquisite evening Irwin conceives, directs and performs.
On Beckett: Exploring The Works of Samuel Beckett introduces us to lesser-known works, and he revisits the often performed Waiting For Godot with the assistance of Finn O’Sullivan as the boy. Irwin appeared in the 2009 production of Godot and received a Drama Desk Award nomination.
As he presents Beckett’s less familiar writings, he acknowledges the importance of the playwright’s Irish voice, identity, and heritage. Notably, Irwin showcases passages from Beckett’s elusive Texts For Nothing (13 short prose pieces), pointing out that Beckett wrote the arcane prose pieces in French, then translated them into English, his native tongue that Irwin identifies as the “familiar familial voice.” As an Irishman writing in French, Beckett maintained his uniquely Irish ethos but received widespread acceptance in France initially. The irony astounds as it is “the product of a complex translation exercise.”
The prose pieces Irwin performs, #1, #9, and #11, are masterworks about being, absence, presence, and vacancy, all interior dialogues and questions. They reveal the common man/woman’s struggle with self in a massive inner argument that represents individual consciousness. And they reveal the human condition of impoverishment, failure, exile, loss. In the passages Irwin selects, Beckett wrangles the concept of consciousness. Indeed, these excerpts reveal the act of viewing oneself in despair, in parallel with the self experiencing despair.
Thus, from both perspectives Beckett suggests questions about existence, survival, struggle, and purpose. The will “not to go on” while “going on” remains paramount in Beckett’s darkest, bleakest comedy. These elements Irwin melds with the cliché of the Comic Irishman “who has waiting to do” and “struggles with the notion of ease, and his placement in the larger scheme of things.”
In his comments before and after excerpts from Beckett’s novels The Unnamable and Watt, Irwin questions: “Is he making fun of the way consciousness works?” Or “is he offering a portrait of consciousness?” As we appreciate this rare experience that Irwin delivers with aplomb, we understand Beckett’s extraordinary contributions. Not only did he assist in the transformation of English modernist literature, he was credited as integral to the Theatre of the Absurd along with Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter. Whether he would have appreciated the latter is debatable.
Notably, through his discussion we get to realize another facet of the diamond that is Bill Irwin’s artistry. In acting Beckett, he questions and appropriates the language and suggested meaning for himself. All of this pertains to and infuses his own relationship to art, acting, clowning, and theatrical expression. Shepherding us through Beckett’s language, Irwin ignites our passion. And he makes Beckett and perhaps ourselves more comprehensible in all the abstruse glory of the incomprehensible tragicomedy of life. Indeed, in his “Introduction” Irwin discusses how Beckett’s unforgettable words have gone viral within him, have haunted him. Certainly, the language resounds in his “head,” “heart,” “brain,” “mind,” “psyche,” “body.” This interesting admission yields that Beckett has been integral to Irwin’s evolution as a man and an actor, as a clown and an artist.
Irwin’s comments sparkle with witty self-effacement. For example in outlining the evening, Irwin references the show lasting 86 minutes or so and quips, “I say this by way of reassurance.” Indeed, Beckett is not easy. But through Irwin’s humor we gradually become intrigued about his novel approach toward his subject and his singular recognition of Beckett’s language.
Irwin gets inside Beckett as an actor, and also explores his work from the perspective of clown theatrics. The great clown traditions, Irwin tells us, are “the lens through which he views everything.” And indeed, he applies this lens to exploring the extent to which he views Beckett as clown territory. Irwin’s hapless Clown characters and the techniques he employs to achieve this archetype everyperson provide the uplift to laugh at our shared humanity.
Revisiting Beckett from this unusual angle, Irwin’s organic acting and portrayal of Beckett’s clown characters enlightens. Cleverly, his performance and astute commentary about acting and language shine a beacon into Beckett’s mysterious obscure.
Kudos also go to Charlie Corcoran (scene design), Martha Hally (costume consultant), Michael Gottlieb (lighting design), and M. Florian Staab (sound design). Don’t miss seeing this wonderful presentation if you can get tickets. It closes on 4 November. Click here for the Irish Repertory Theatre website for times and tickets.
The Aran Islands J.M. Synge’s work adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne in an extended run at the Irish Repertory Theatre through 6 August, first and foremost is a tome to the three, stark, wind-swept, rocky islands that are the sentinels of Galway Bay on the picturesque and green-lovely West Coast of Ireland. For millennia the Aran Islands have had as their mission to mitigate the ferocious and fickle storms, oppressive fogs and shattering clashes between air, land and sea. They provide a powerful breakfront for Galway City, so that it might prosper unhinged by the natural elements. Without the stolid, natural wall of Inishmaan, Inishmore and Inisheer, all the harshness of the weather and roaring sea would continually have battered Galway and perhaps lessened Irish interest to build an incredible, romantic, tourist friendly city that is currently flourishing and is a favored recommended spot of Irish citizens who suggest to visitors, “You must visit the west country.”
W.B. Yeats said the same to J. M. Synge when they met at the Sorbonne, Paris in 1896. Only with Yeats being Yeats and Synge being Synge, Yeats encouraged the younger writer to visit and spend time on the Aran Islands to get to know the people and their primitive culture and rural, seaward lifestyle. Yeats’ hope was that Synge’s visit would be the catalyst to spur the young man’s imagination and experience the profound themes of birth, life and death. How these central dynamisms of life teased and blasted the inhabitants directly, the fascinated Synge captured in his work. The islanders, who lived without the distractions and stimulations of city life, like the Aran Islands themselves, had to confront and withstand, as it were, the batterings of the elements with only the bulwark of their isolated community network and companionship of their fellow resisters.
Yeats most probably wanted Synge to also experience the symbolism of raging nature in confrontation with the stalwart, intrepid character of the lonely inhabitants who managed a meager daily subsistence in an unwelcoming land. There, they had to front the torments of sickness, ill health and old age at the edge of the world, which appeared to be going backward in man’s history when cities were beginning to experience electricity and modernism.
The fact that they were able to carve out a hard scrabble life was a luxury. Indeed, everywhere they went life and death were married in tortuous embrace and the residents, like a tribal people, used their myths and storytelling to fill the dreary nights and chronicle their relationships to each other and the land as life’s and death’s immutability clamped down upon all that they endeavored.
A visceral and memorable portrait of the natural elements, the people’ struggle and the barren, bleak, rock-hard lifestyle and landscape are indelibly portrayed in the cadences and rhythms of Synge’s description of the Aran Islands in O’Byrne’s incisive adaptation of Synge’s work, The Aran Islands, formerly a book length journal. The sheer poetic call of the undulations of the sea in its ferocity and tameness, the delicious descriptions and sound effects of language which are indelibly linked to Synge’s later work, have found a marvelous home in this travelog/adaptation. O’Byrne has reshaped it into a solo performance of an individual, the reaffirmation of Synge himself, who is a neophyte of all things “Aran.” As the production develops, this comes to mean all realms that flow easily among the levels of consciousness in stories told about the past in historical time and place, and which do represent the present, and are harbingers of the future.
I can imagine no one but Brendan Conroy to be the sojourner to the Aran Islands, an older Synge, whose face brightens as we might imagine Synge’s did when he saw the lands in the distance and eventually stepped off on to the pier and then on hardened, rocky ground. Conroy’s mastery of Synge’s poetic cadences and luscious images and his manipulation of pauses, digressions and silences transform him into the islands’ storytellers and ancient, wizened, rural magi (wise ones), who stories convey ever-present themes. Conroy beautifully renders the particularity of each with effortless realism.
I could understand and visualize every beat, every declension, every word spoken and inferred in the descriptions and characterizations of the islanders who shared eerie stories around the central core of every family, the hearth. Conroy’s insight and understanding of how aural power may transform the listener into his or her own visualist and imagist is greatly appreciated in a time when we may too often rely on visual effects selected by others to relate stories which we then can easily dismiss because we have not used our own imagination to power up the visuals.
On another level this is a production about visualizing with the eye of consciousness, of employing one’s imagination to be transported through the rich medium of Synge’s figurative, elegant, word crafting. If one listens, then one cannot help but focus on Conroy’s dark, full-bodied, resonant, somber and sometimes higher pitched musical instrument of a voice which he modulates with just enough breath and lung power to reverberate and touch the hearts of the audience.
Conroy entices all to see encapsulated in the words, the airy visions which are transformed through the medium of sound. With focused attention and appreciation, Conroy provides us with a heightened awareness of Synge’s rich language, the sound effects (i.e. alliteration, onomotopoeia), and imagery. Conroy’s gestures and changes in posture convey the various island characters; he effects these characterizations with a minimalism that does not detract from the beauty of Synge’s words. We are rapt and caught up in the consciousness of Synge’s personal observations made real to us. It is of a time and place which is now gone but will be ever-present in the writer’s journal and O’Byrne’s adaptation.
If you enjoy Synge and love traveling to Ireland, even if, at this point, you have no intention of going, allow the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of the Aran Islands to take you there. This adaption ably directed by O’Byrne, with the assistance of artistic team Margaret Nolan (set designer) Marie Tierney (costume design) Joe O’Byrne (lighting design) Kieran Duddy (original music) is incisively brought to life. Special kudos goes to Conroy’s performance effected by his prodigious talent and artistry. This presentation will bring the sentinels of Galway Bay to your imagination and deliver you to a time and place more viscerally felt than looking at historic sepia photographs.
The Aran Islands is currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street) until 6 August. It is around 100 minutes with one intermission. For tickets visit the Box Office in person or go to their website: CLICK HERE. You can order by phone at 212-727-2737
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein is an entertaining and poignant evening of music and story-telling. The production directed by Nick Corley with music direction by David M. Lutken, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, presents the life and work of the monumental musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose work resonates for all Americans especially so when citizens feel they are powerless in the face of injustice.
With his ballads, political, traditional folk and country-blues songs and stories, Woody Guthrie chronicled the lives of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. He traveled across the country living with the little people with whom he identified and became a call sign. He recognized that the “salt of the earth” were the backbone of the nation squeezed by the banking industry and Wall Street. He sang of their economic tribulations and deprivation, their struggles through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era which led to the California migration and the abuses of migrant farm workers by farm conglomerates such as they were at that juncture in our history.
Above all, he uplifted and encouraged that, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” With these words many were able to gather their forces, unionize and create movements to strengthen and consolidate their efforts in the struggle for economic equity.
Guthrie was the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and advocate, whose songs excoriated the wealthy and their puppet politicians of both parties as the root of the farmers and little peoples’ hardships and evils. Though he flirted with communism and socialism and even wrote the column “Woody Sez” for the Communist paper People’s World (which appropriately is the title of this production) his music was his primary vehicle to uplift and exhort. He never joined any party and preferred to roam freely, always an observer and chronicler more than a participant who supported any one political cause. His cause was that of all of humanity. This production of Woody Sez highlights the finest and most endearing turning points in his life, always revealing the complexity of his nature in its most humorous, glorious and flawed states.
Act I starts with the Company’s singing “This Train is Bound for Glory.” It is an appropriate memorial of the journey of Guthrie’s glory that the actors/singers/musicians (stirring performances by Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein) lead us through to understand the beauty and humanity of Guthrie. In a relaxed, down-to-earth performance style, Lutken assumes the persona of Guthrie first by introducing himself as one who venerates Guthrie. He becomes Woody through episodic narration as he relates the key points of Guthrie’s life and the songs that reveal major themes and issues Guthrie experiences.
The production structure is essentially a flashback of his life. It is framed by Guthrie’s time in New York City in 1940 with Guthrie’s stint on a radio show at Rockefeller Center which a friend helped secure for him. The first scene includes the ensemble. They portray various roles throughout the production: Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell. Guthrie (Lutken) sings one of his political songs on the radio which ridicules the wealthy. We are introduced to Guthrie’s freedom-loving personality. He is incapable of compromising his values, his dreams, his autonomy to tow the conservative line and accept censorship of his politics and criticism of Wall Street bankers and old J.D., the scion of Rockefeller Center. When Guthrie is fired, we are transported to the past to envision how Guthrie became that revolutionary individual.
Guthrie/Lutken discusses that he was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. We are introduced to his mother and siblings in song, the ensemble filling in the roles. We learn of the family’s troubles and the tragedies they faced with his mother’s evolving illness. The narration is simple yet heart-breaking and is also chilling. The ensemble and Lutken backdrop the prose with the dynamic of themed songs that are powerful and touching.
Guthrie’s journey continues through their impoverishment and his resilience attempting to “sing for money” during the boom town years when oil was discovered in Okemah. But their family situation worsens with death and more tragedy and eventually Guthrie strikes out on his own as a teenager discovering who he is and what he is made of. He travels to Texas to see his relatives and Dad. He sings in a makeshift band with his uncle and makes some money and even gets married.
But the April Dust Storm of 1935 overwhelms, and all is lost in a country that has been consumed by dust and sand. Everyone’s bank accounts are fallow as the bankers come for the land to pay off the farmers’ debts. Once again Guthrie travels, hopping a freight to California where he sees thousands of Americans traveling across the country. Their hopes and dreams of survival must be found at the precipice of the country’s Pacific Ocean border in California, the new Eden. After that, there is nowhere else to go.
By the end of Act I, Guthrie’s young eyes have been opened, and his political discernment solidified. Life and success are about money which the working man can never obtain without credit and which gamblers seem to be luxuriating in despite their craven, wanton existence of selfishness. It is an ever-recurring theme throughout the production, threaded through various songs.
In Act II Guthrie has gained notoriety as a voice of the people. By this point he has accepted his identity that this is where he belongs as their advocate and more importantly, a mirror to validate their experiences as human beings who must never lose their power in hope. This time of American farmer migrants is represented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (sung throughout the production), “Vigilante Man,” and “Union Maid” the last two based on true stories which reveal the oppression of the working class against the businessmen owners and the violent abuse they sustain when they attempt to assert their rights as human beings to obtain a living wage through organizing unions.
It is in this act that Guthrie’s legacy takes flight. He sings with Pete Seeger’s group The Almanacs and uses his voice and guitar to fight Hitler during WWII with a sign on his guitar, “This machine fights fascists.” The emphasis is on fighting fascism at home and abroad to support peace with songs which ring loudly and clearly against American and foreign war lords who would sacrifice their countrymen to make money. He records various songs and though he copywrites his music, he encourages others to sing his songs, even without paying him. This has led to controversial copywrite wars up to the last decade and represents a rapacity that Guthrie would abhor. As the production winds down to the conclusion, we discover how Guthrie’s music and recordings triumph despite his being rendered silent by the same illness that engulfed his mother. The production reminds us of this iconic man and helps us appreciate the wealth of historic moments captured for all time by his songs.
With a minimalistic set and adaptive, flexible staging, the ensemble brings together their sterling musical skills on every string instrument that rings out Guthrie’s country, folk, blues from violin to banjo, from guitar to harmonica and more. The performers’ voices soar with the haunting melodies and joyful rhythms of 20th century Americana that have been taken up by everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg.
The production reveals why tributes are continually held to honor Woody Guthrie’s music and life. His work is imminently universal and timeless. He is a beacon for future generations as long as economic injustice blankets any area of the planet. Indeed, as this production of Woody Sez thematically indicates, “the chickens have surely come home to roost.” A researcher in 2016 discovered in the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma that Guthrie criticized Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, revealing his disgust with the father as a landlord. In song lyrics, Guthrie accuses Fred Trump of stirring up racial hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts.”
Guthrie’s words will continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds. The injunctions in his songs are a welcome anodyne to get us through the next day or over a rough patch to eventually take the stand necessary in our own lives and for our culture and nation.
This fine production of Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie (one intermission) runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd) until 23 July. You may purchase tickets HERE.
A few years ago, my friend Bob who was wearing an orange shirt and was going through passport control in Dublin, Ireland, was startled when a staffer stopped him and said, “I wouldn’t wear that shirt outside of Dublin though you’re a Yank. People will take offense.” Bob heeded his advice and after doing a bit of online research at his Dublin hotel, understood what the official meant. Even though the Good Friday peace agreement ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998, the wounds were still raw. At the time Bob visited, there was an unrest that bubbled just under the surface. If the protestant pro-British Orange Order held a parade, the Irish Catholics often were unduly provoked and took umbrage. Surely, peace had come. But the conflicts were all encompassing, then and now, and it may be a few more decades before the waters have completely smoothed over and horrible incidents that occurred during The Troubles remain buried forever in lost memories.
The Belle of Belfast presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre which is currently playing at the DR2 Theater, has as its setting Belfast, Ireland. The time is 1985 the year of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and 13 years before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. In Belfast 1985 The Troubles between Irish Catholic paramilitary groups who intend to break away and join the Republic of Ireland to the south and the protestant paramilitary groups who are determined to keep British rule of Northern Ireland are steadfast, and there doesn’t appear to be an adequate resolution in sight.
The intense and harrowing conflict of the 40 years war is not the subject of The Belle of Belfast. Nevertheless, it contributes an elusive and ever-present darkness that overshadows the events and individuals’ inner conflicts. The darkness continually rises from the depths of the abyss of hatred and despair that impacts the main characters who try to make their lives in Belfast but who are often jolted by the sporadic violence which they have come to internalize. The characters live with the tiresome, oppressive atmosphere of guerilla warfare which can strike anyone at any time. And they must become inured to it and find their way through the morass of bloodshed as individuals are “disappeared,” become martyrs, or are hapless victims of the collateral damage sprayed by bombs meant for “the enemy.” We come to understand the depths of the dark shadow of war as the play evolves and the characters react to each other and seek unsuccessful personal solutions most probably influenced by the undercurrents of danger they must live with and force themselves to reconcile as a fact of life in Belfast during The Troubles.
Director Claudia Weill has expertly fashioned Nate Rufus Edelman’s The Belle of Belfast. With the help of set designer John Mcdermott, the director has made sure the production employs a clever and symbolic economy of design. The three sections of the stage suggest different areas: outside in the city of Belfast and inside in the private interior of the Catholic church confessional and the rectory. For the outside, the bleak walls of division and sterility of a life lived amidst randomized terror is evoked with graffitied brick walls and barbed wire, stage left. The exterior is contrasted with an interior, the ironic security offered by a church confessional in the stage middle. To stage right is positioned the personal inner sanctity of the priests’ rectory where truthful actions and comments are laid bare by three of the main characters. Lest audience members are unfamiliar with the history of the setting, at the play’s outset a black and white film clip of a variety of shots of beleaguered Belfast unspools to project the tattered lives of the residents (children and adults), and the sorrow and violence that is their portion during The Troubles.
As these projections fade, the light focuses on the confessional interior. At confession is a typical, elderly, staunch Irish Catholic woman, Emma Malloy (Patricia Conolly does a beautiful job as the humorous, slightly ridiculous and eccentric aunt of feisty Anne Malloy). Emma Malloy is sharing her darkest secrets with the handsome, youthful priest, the father confessor in a parish that offers help in this trying time of soul need to offset the chaos and confusion everyone is experiencing. Of course the help is for Catholics and though the tenets of Christianity encompass both protestants and Catholics, the irony is not lost on us that Catholicism is a tremendous thorn in the flesh of the Protestants on the other side of the high walls which divide Irish from Irish.
During the ironic and funny exchange between the priest and Emma Malloy, the playwright has unfolded the character of Father Ben Reilly (an excellent Hamish Allan-Headley), as a sympathetic and well meaning Irish Catholic cleric who attempts to remain above the fray following the tenets of Christianity as best he can. Nate Rufus Edelman has expertly established the gnawing rodents of duplicity within the Father that will continue to eat at him until they devour his potential for goodness. With Emma Malloy, we understand that the Father is playing the part of the good priest as he perceives his role to be. However, we also understand that the depth of goodness is not yet present in him to actually be that good priest, for we also see the extent to which Emma Malloy tries his patience and the extent to which he allows her to frustrate him. Instead of “stopping her in her tracks” for her silly ideas of what constitutes sinning (one thing Catholicism teaches well is sinning and condemnation), he allows her to continue in folly, “showing” how kind he can be until she makes untoward remarks that are sinful. Here is a flawed priest, who in his attempts to be empathetic and gracious goes overboard toward permissiveness because of his notions about how a priest should be kind and understanding. In attempting both, he ends up doing neither, though he is charming, self-deceitful and apparently “harmless.”
Of course, the irony is that with the true tenets of Christianity, it is not about image, it is about substance, about what happens behind closed doors, about what happens in the rectory when the public isn’t watching. That is what counts and the playwright never reveals the characters’ relationships with God and that absence is crucial to the understanding of the play and the understanding of the characters who are in desperate need of help and who are incapable of receiving it through the source they have supposedly chosen to pray to. Clearly, this priest and his colleague Father Behan (Billy Meleady), are having their own “troubles” with the substance of love and truth. Edelman brilliantly reveals how they are having issues with self-deceit as they attempt to “appear good” but find it much harder to “be” good. Their trials are revealed during their personal moments away from their roles as priests and after they return to the rectory, relax and take off their collars. This is one of the main conflicts of the play, the image of goodness versus the reality of goodness and gives rise to the theme: if one does not live in truth, one is miserable living in hypocrisy. The theme has broader implications for indeed, the whole of Northern Ireland is reeling from this problem, especially in their disparate warring religious factions which lack “the substance” to be Christians in word, deed and love: they cannot forgive each other; they cannot ultimately forgive themselves.
The playwright has cleverly characterized Father Reilly revealing the seeds of his potential downfall which like weeds in a garden plague him. These weeds grow quickly and are the cause of his weaknesses which allow him to succumb to the manipulative wiles of the fiery teenager Anne Malloy (the angst-filled “belle”). As a result of their flawed actions both Anne and the Father are forced to view the truth of themselves and the pictures are ugly. The characterizations are aptly drawn; we note Father Reilly’s rationalizations to Father Behan when he protests that he is trying to help Anne. But when he ends up seducing her, he is easily able to convince himself that it is the other way around, that he has allowed her to seduce him. Regardless, both Anne and he are culpable; both make each other miserable with the truth of their self-deceit and lies, though his is the greater blame because he violates his position as a “pure man of God,” and she is a minor, not really responsible for her own decision making, though of course, she believes she is.
Likewise, the playwright’s characterization of Father Ben Reilly’s fellow colleague in the parish, Father Behan (a fine, nuanced and edgy performance by Billy Meleady), shows another cleric in the throes of a personal crisis. Behan despises the protestants and supports the Irish Republicans, though he knows he should remain objective. He is an alcoholic with the excuse that it is a way to get over and through the miseries of the times. Yet, rather than to rely on his faith to help him end the addiction, we see that his faith fails him and even inspires him to drink more. He has chosen a profession about which he is largely indifferent and is now stuck in. It is a cryptic irony that he hopes he doesn’t have to continue to be a priest when he is dead and in heaven, for that would be hellish. As a priest there are no choices left for him and he wishes he were anywhere but Belfast, the worst place to get murdered for being a priest. As we see for Father Reilly and Father Behan, both succumb to the dark time of chaos. Both cannot see their way clear to confront their character imperfections. Both lack the faith to work through and achieve peace.
Edelman has presented the underlying issues of the characters from which the incipient themes evolve, hammering these through to the conclusion. We recognize that all of the characters have opaque vision; they are limited from seeing the hypocrisy of their own actions as they walk in a bizarre, dual state of determination and haphazardness. They mistake their false assumptions about themselves as truthful and accurate, only to find out later they are playing at being what they are not. Of course, they are miserable and their actions lead to devastation. However, because of the backdrop of war which rears its ugly head from time to time in a bomb blast that kills or in the terrible beating and victimization of someone, we know that the characters are reeling from the confusion which foments the mist through which the ever-present threat of violence erupts. We forgive them for they are easy to recognize in ourselves; such is the state of affairs in the human soul: until unity and peace come, it’s division and war.
Thus, when wise-cracking, foul-mouthed and brash Anne Malloy (played with abrasive and wild-hearted abandon by Kate Lydic), tells conflicted and insecure friend Ciara Murphy (the vulnerable and resigned Arielle Hoffman), that she is in love with Father Reilly and she will be with him, we are not surprised. We have anticipated this, as we anticipate the tragedy of their coupling and the impossibility of their being together because they have no solid relationship borne of love. We know his permissiveness and his playing at being the good priest has been the snare that renders him a hypocrite to the faith and a predator. With kind duplicity he does harm to her and himself. Father Reilly is incapable of seeing clearly that Anne Malloy is playing at being in love with him in a desperate quest for happiness. He cannot discern the truth to know that she is searching for a love of self that will fill her soul more than what she could ever have with him. Blindly, Father Reilly takes advantage of her inner emptiness. Deceitfully, he becomes a predator exploiting her sorrow. He adds to her soul damage; orphaned by her parent’s death in a bomb blast as a child, she is forced to live with her difficult aunt from whom she feels little love.
The importance of The Troubles as a backdrop to what happens in the inner sanctum of the rectory is a clever touch brought to the fore by the canny director. Father Reilly’s abuse of Anne’s fragile emotions and the abuse of his position is performed behind closed doors away from the prying eyes of the parish. In the rectory he turns this emotional violence against himself as he upends his own integrity. In hypocrisy he trashes everything good that he may have attempted in the past. In an invisible line from the external brick wall and barbed wire right through to the rectory, the director and playwright show that the war’s shocks have led him to become an emotional casualty of the war’s harm. The tragic irony is that as a casualty, he cannot rightly understand how to best help Anne. Thus, he contributes to making her into a twice-fold victim of The Troubles. His failures as a priest thwart her from achieving soul health: the “love” she sought to replace that was lost at her parent’s death can never come from Father Reilly; she is twice traumatized. The emotional violence Father Reilly and Anne enact upon themselves and each other mirrors the violence of Belfast. Though they are alive and breathing, emotionally they shatter one another. They can only inure themselves to the pain and move on. If they make themselves numb, there may be a kind of deliverance after all. However, there is no grace that they can give each other; they lack that power. It will have to come from another source, if it comes at all.
Through the fine, on point acting, the director’s steadfast vision and the help of the artistic team, Edelman’s work shines with humor, cleverness and grace, revealing how in a time of chaos, individuals attempt to make the best of the hand they are dealt but often make a shambles of it, instead. This would appear to be doubly true when those appointed to help “make the peace” are often the ones doing the harm. To what extent does the war impact individuals’ choices? On a continuum from 1-100, it cannot be discounted and like an earthquakes’ aftershocks, the calm may settle but things have been irrevocably changed. So Edelman points out. After a few years have passed, Anne Malloy, achieves a term of happiness which she discusses with Father Reilly when she finds him after he moves from Belfast. Meeting with him, she explains what happened in her life after she left the war zone. It is obvious that she has made a tentative peace. For Father Reilly the playwright is silent about the divisions in the cleric’s soul. Nevertheless, for these two characters, it is a fitting conclusion reflective of the citizens in Belfast whose high walls still divide and whose wounds have yet to heal completely.
You can see the terrific The Belle of Belfast at the DR2 Theatre until June 14th.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics: CLICK HERE WHERE IT WAS AN “EDITOR’S PICK.”