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.
Little Gem starring the wonderful Marsha Mason at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a poignant and comedic look at three generations of women from North Inner City Dublin. We follow along as the grandmother, daughter and granddaughter share their experiences, responses and perspectives at major turning points in their lives. Each tells their tale in six separate segments precipitated by a visit to the doctor’s office. In the final segment, the women, having gone through their own personal cataclysms, rally around the comfort of each other and sleep in the same bed, reunited in love and understanding.
The play written by Elaine Murphy premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2008, where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award before transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This production directed by Marc Atkinson Borrull is essentially a solo tour de force for each character/actor. The only interaction among the characters occurs in the last segment. Only then do we see grandmother Kay (Marsha Mason is powerful, heartfelt and funny) daughter Lorraine (Brenda Meaney is ironic and nuanced) and Lauren O’Leary as the wise-cracking, sharp-tonged Amber relate to each other directly.
During the production, we listen to the narration of each woman separately. We revisit how each is at a different stage in her life (symbolic of women in general at different ages in their lives). We understand how she experiences the physical and emotional desires of needing and wanting to be in a relationship with someone who will care for her. And we note how each negotiates the wheel and woe of their personal relationships.
The women relate their stories in flashback in direct addresses to the audience. Initially, we discover the superficial reasons why they are in a doctor’s office. Amber has indigestion and throws up frequently in the mornings. Lorraine is emotionally mottled with stress and needs medications to calm her and resettle her life. Kay has a “personal itch down there.”
As the production unfolds the women by degrees go into their reveals during their story-telling turns with the youngest generation first, simulating the arc of life’s beginning. The forty-something Lorraine represents the middle stage of life and the sixty-something Kay represents the senior years. As they each address the audience, we understand the depth of their angst as they relate how their situations become the touchstones of their growth and realizations. The progression is an interesting one and thematically reminds us of the innocence and naiveté of youth (the fecund period) the transformation into recognizing deeper values in life and the winding down into menopause, and the increased sexual libido that often occurs for older women long after they’ve thrown off the aftereffects of child rearing.
In six segments Amber discusses the events with Paul which brought her to the doctor to help her during her pregnancy and afterward as she takes care of baby Jamie and he is accepted into the family. We discover how Lorraine’s stress precipitated by her lack of communication with Amber and worry centered around Amber’s sometimes wild behavior (like mother, like daughter) is somewhat mitigated when she follows her therapist’s suggestions to “get out of herself” and her miseries and goes dancing. After she meets someone, with Amber’s encouragement she goes on a date with him in what becomes a developing relationship.
At the doctor’s office Kay receives “the ok” to have sex without Little Gem who is too debilitated and ill to continue their fabulous sex life. She will do this via the help of a vibrator. Indeed, the scene when Mason effects this is one of the funniest in the play. And as Little Gem fades from this life and moves into the next, at the grave she grieves her husband and in the last scene of the play seeks the comfort of her daughter and granddaughter.
Elaine Murphy’s work is strongest in the concept of revelation and self-recognition and growth that occurs in each of the women’s lives. However, the playwright decides to keep the play largely expositional. This dissipates the drama that occurs in the family dynamic. We note the underlying levels of action, however they are reported; an example of this occurs when Lorraine discusses that she doesn’t communicate with her daughter. However, we never see the characters Lorraine and Amber demonstrate how or when this occurs actively. Likewise, the characters may talk about a family member who stands next to them, but there is no active dialogue or exchange between and among each of the characters until the end. The strongest exchange occurs only then when they get into bed after Little Gem dies and they comfort Kay to reveal they unite as a family.
For me any related emotional power and inherent possibility of empathy falls short with the playwright’s selection of this expositional structure predominately. Would the play have worked more dramatically and humorously with different staging and lighting as each woman takes a darkened stage stepping into the spotlight and sharing the import of her story? Somehow, the office setting was a banal distraction. Or was this the point since the women are vibrant and we are transfixed at various times during their revelations?
The actors stand out because through them, their characters’ stories are exposed. They remind all of us that we have a story to tell and it is representational and unique for our time and place. Meaney, O’Leary and Mason engage and keep us launched into remembering what has occurred previously. We must figure out how related events have bled into the current segments of their narration as they detail the specifics: Lorraine’s difficulties with her daughter, Amber’s difficulties with Paul after he discovers she’s pregnant, Little Gem’s sickness and dying. We become the catch-basin for all of their humorous/poignant story events. These are peaked with the tragicomedy of Amber’s, Lorraine’s and Kay’s feminine perspectives of their middle class lives which include the prickly narrative of their relationships: Amber’s reports of sometime boyfriend Paul, Lorraine’s report of a poignant conversation with junkie ex-husband Ray, and Kay’s explanation of her role as caretaker during Little Gem’s frustrating illness and heartbreaking death.
Little Gem is a portrait of women during crisis and the ways they look for the humor and uplift during the rough patches of life. The audience partners with them as we listen to their troubles like a good friend or neighbor. And in the telling of their stories there is the release, growth and hope that in the family all will be well as the next generation adds to the flavor of their future. And so it goes for us as well.
Little Gem is in a revival in New York from a run in 2010 and is in a limited engagement through 1 September. For tickets and times at the Irish Rep website CLICK HERE.
When it premiered at The Abbey Theatre in 1926, The Plough and the Stars initially opened to acclaim. However, word got out that O’Casey had written a play critical of Irish nationalism and religion, and the acclaim turned to disapprobation. O’Casey elected to focus on the hapless Dubliners, many women and children, who had been swept up in the bloodshed of the Easter Rising of 1916. During the five days of fierce fighting between the British and the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Republican Brotherhood, the British who had brought in heavy artillery, machine guns and bombshells with over nine times the troop strength of the Irish converted central Dublin and the tenements where citizens lived into a war zone. Because of the hundreds of citizen fatalities and thousands injured, the Irish rebels surrendered to save the city. The British took revenge with arrests and summary executions of the organizers, sealing the ill-will of Ireland and guaranteeing the irrevocability of Irish Independence.
In this last production of the Dublin Trilogy, the Irish Repertory Theatre, which has presented an amazing season of Sean O’Casey’s works, ends with its most masterful and emotional production to date. Directed by Charlotte Moore, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars remains a sterling and representative human drama that soars into the heavens with the timeless message that there are no victors when members of the human family take up arms and kill each other. Assuredly, it is the innocent trying to make it to the next day, who become the casualties of violent conflicts. Those who die achieve a final peace; the living have to deal with the horrible memories and consequences of the aftermath of war.
The actors expertly shepherded by Moore effect O’Casey’s themes with emotional grist and power. As an ensemble their work together is exquisite, paced, focused, present. Because of their attention to moment-to-moment living onstage, the impact that rises from scene to scene and especially in the last scenes when the conflict and suspense are greatest are breathtakingly real and tragic.
The play follows the homely interactions of tenement dwellers in the latter part of 1915 and during the Easter Rebellion of 1916. These scenes of the every day lives of the tenement dwellers draw our empathy. In their discussions we become apprised that there are marches and meetings of various Irish groups who are gathering to amass political sentiment in support of the hoped for Irish rebellion and move toward independence. The meetings which have gained fervent advocates eventually come to a head and the play’s action shifts to events in Dublin during Easter Week 1916. It is then that O’Casey most acutely and poignantly reveals how these horrific events impact the lives of the Dubliners who live and hide in the tenements as they are shelled, shot at and warred against by the British Tommies who attempt to quash the rebellion.
In the first part of the production we note how O’Casey illustrates the divisions among the Irish citizens living in one lower middle class Dublin tenement. These characterizations develop and remain the focal point of the play. Some of the Dubliners have antithetical political affiliations like protestant, pro-British Bessie Burgess (the wonderful Maryann Plunkett who gives a heartfelt, frenzied, emotional portrayal throughout). Bessie’s son fought and died with the British as a Dublin Fusilier during early battles of The Great War. Her expressed rage and fury at the supporters of Irish Independence is understandable, though the other tenants think she is loathsome. Indeed, by the play’s end O’Casey’s twist of characterization proves her a formidable human being; and Maryann Plunkett brings this out in spades.
Others, like fiesty Peter Flynn (the humorous Robert Langdon Lloyd), the life-worn Mrs. Gogan (the fine Una Clancy) and Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy is spot-on in his rousing portrayal of the carpenter who represents the typical working man) empathize with the Irish cause of independence as Catholics. Meanwhile, The Young Covey (the excellent James Russell) is the critical, anti-religious, acerbic intellectual who strafes the cause of independence with his caustic remarks. He is frustrated that the socialist cause he advocates has been redirected from the Worker’s of the World uniting to overthrow the capitalistic system.
Much of the humor in the first part of the play centers around O’Casey’s identification of the cross section of individuals who are disparate from one another in beliefs, religion and intellectual ethos. Yet they live in Dublin tenements and make up the culture and society of the city as they remain economically oppressed and without a voice in the government. We laugh as they carp and criticize each other to the extent that one wonders how the country will unite against the British at any level. Into this convulsed and funny hodgepodge of characters come the newly weds, the sweet, romantic Nora (Clare O’Malley gives a fervent, emotional and powerful performance throughout) and husband Jack (the sensitive and forceful Adam Petherbridge) who eventually, despite Nora’s surreptitious attempts to prevent this, is proudly made Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army.
Jack, infuriated that Nora withheld information of his promotion out of fear for his death, argues with her vehemently. Indeed, her self-interest and duplicity push him right into the arms of his mates. The scene where she admits she lied is dynamic and powerful. O’Casey’s characterizations are authentic and the actors (O’Malley and Petherbridge) are so letter perfect that we imagine such scenes playing out in households throughout Dublin and in a universal sense that this occurs in every war fought regardless of politics or nation. The timeless quality of war as a sacrifice of innocents is everpresent and beautifully rendered thematically in this scene.
As Young Covey, Fluther and Flynn meet and have drinks in a Public House after listening to speakers and continuing to listen to them from inside the pub, we meet additional Dublin denizens who will be impacted by the coming rebellion. These are the “lady of the night” Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street) and the Bartender who also plays Sargent Tinley (Harry Smith). In this interlude at the pub, the tension outside is rising and we note the success of the march and the rousing political speeches meant to mobilize the crowds.
When Jack and his mates come into the pub and conclude the scene with their nationalistic cries, they wave the flag (The Plough and the Stars, and the Tricolor Flag of Irish Independence). As these volunteers uphold their allegiance to a free Ireland, they put their family, wives and homes second. Nora is abandoned and forgotten as Ireland becomes Jack’s family.
In the next scenes that take place during the Easter week, April 1916, the irony of Jack’s heady, ebullient nationalistic sentiment is pitted against the frightful horrors that these volunteers and tenement dwellers face in the violence during the five days they confront heavy artillery and machine guns. The booming sounds are heard in the distance. Nora who looks for Jack to bring him home (an ignominious, selfish and cowardly action from Jack’s perspective) proclaims that she sees the fear in the Irish soldiers’ eyes while the soldiers she meets tell her she is shaming Jack.
In this fabulously directed scene that is tense, frightful, poignant and rage-filled, Nora struggles physically with Jack to keep him with her. And Bessie screams epithets and insults at Jack, Captain Brennan (John Keating) and the wounded dying Lieutenant Langon (Ed Malone). At the height of the drama, Jack berates Nora for attempting to keep him from fighting the cause, then he and the others leave to look for a doctor. Bessie who has a turn of empathy for Nora brings her safely inside, then runs for a doctor to help Mrs. Gogan’s dying daughter Mollser (Meg Hennessy). Kudos to the superb ensemble and the principals whose urgency and focus create the incredible tension in the scene. The audience is enthralled throughout.
As marvelous as Act III is, O’Casey’s climax in Act IV is without parallel and Moore and the actors are beyond exceptional in bringing the conclusion to its final glowing draw-down. O’Casey hammers his themes. These, he has seeded earlier in the play. In the final act they foment with the growing chaos which sweeps up various individuals unwittingly caught in the rebellion, i.e. The Woman from Rathmines (Terry Donnelly). Everyone who can be represented is. O’Casey reveals the tragedy and futility of innocents dying as they are mistaken for “the enemy.” In this last act of this most incredibly paced and dramatically written of his plays, we understand the genius of his message to humanity, which has been ignored and will continue to be ignored long into the next century.
There is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see how the conclusion unfolds ironically in this must-see production which is truly magnificent and fiercely trenchant and timely. I cannot praise this production with high enough encomiums for the director and cast except to say it will be a damn shame if you miss it.
Charlie Cororan (Scenic Design) Linda Fisher and David Toser (Costume Design) Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design) Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab (Sound Design) and Ryan Rumery (Original Music) and others on the artistic team do a superb job in bringing about the authenticity of this production.
The Plough and the Stars (with one intermission) and the entire Dublin Trilogy can be seen until 22nd June at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd). For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING 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.
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.”