Irish Repertory Theatre continually proves that it can do the extraordinary with skill, talent and enthusiasm, as it mesmerizes and endears its members, donors and global audience with exceptional productions. This is particularly amazing during a time when New York City theater is staying safe and waiting until the blessings of the COVID-19 vaccines mitigate the dangers of the pandemic which to date has killed 330,000 Americans.
Thus, we welcome being cheered up for the holiday season. And what better way than to peer into past reflections of hope when The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, unofficially the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, commemorated the 100th year of the Louisiana Purchase. The Fair, the last great international exposition before World War I, was an extravaganza that included hundreds of thousands of people, animals, unique items and displays. It magnified the bright future of industry and innovation from 63 exhibiting countries and 43 of the 45 United States.
Excitement about the St. Louis Fair, which is the central image highlighted in the titular song of the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, drives the beginning and finale of the Irish Rep production. The book by Hugh Wheeler and songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane are based on the Kensington Stories by Sally Benson and the 1944 MGM Motion Picture Meet Me in St Louis. Adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore with musical direction by John Bell, orchestrations by Josh Clayton and produced by Ciarán Reilly, this Holiday Special in Song and Screen can be appreciated again and again, whether with family or individually. You will never tire of the show because it is that wonderful.
The production values are sophisticated and spot-on. The orchestra’s superb technique performed seamlessly on zoom (thanks to the wizardry of musicians, Bell, M. Florian Staab and others) perfectly blends with the gorgeous voices of the cast, a tricky technical feat, especially with the ensemble numbers. The tuneful and lighthearted, upbeat songs (Trolley Song,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Drunk Song,” “Touch of the Irish”) and in other instances poignant, familiar numbers (“The Boy Next Door”) are a pleasant remembrance, if you have seen the MGM film and the 1989 Broadway version which starred Charlotte Moore as Anne Smith.
Some of the songs in the Broadway version have been cut, a wise choice for a streaming production you watch via your tablet, phone or computer. But one song that had been cut from the 1989 Broadway show was added in the Irish Rep version (“You’ll Hear a Bell”). This song, reprised in the second act, is beautifully rendered by the golden-throated, imminently watchable Melissa Errico the mother. Anne Smith encourages her daughter Esther (Shereen Ahmed) about understanding and recognizing love based on her own experience with her husband, Alonzo Smith, Esther’s father.
Charlotte Moore shepherds the cast with precision. She astutely teases out winning performances and humor from Kylie Kuioka (Tootie) who is a fireball of joy and mischievousness, the perfect foil for the sedate, companionable, near-in-age, wry, older sister Agnes (Austyn Johnson). The marriageable sisters, Rose (the vibrant Ali Ewoldt) and linchpin of the production, Esther (the soulful, exciting Shereen Ahmed) propel the plot development. Theirs is newfound love with their prospective partners the reserved Warren Sheffield (Ian Holcomb in a fine portrayal) and the “boy next door” John Truitt (the affable, illimitable Max Von Essen).
As Esther expresses good will toward the family which is sorrowful about moving, she poignantly sings the profound (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) which is nostaligic under any circumstances and particularly heartbreaking under present circumstances of the pandemic. Shereen Ahmed’s Esther is particularly well wrought with her lyrical vocal instrument and authenticity of portrayal in the lead that Judy Garland played on film.
With the couples’ togetherness thrown down by Alonzo Smith’s moving the family to New York to make more money and raise their standard of living, we note this makes sense if seen through modern values that lift wealth and money above well being and happiness. However, Father Smith (Rufus Collins does a fine job in the concluding scene) in a throwback to old-fashioned values and economies of the past (only Dads worked) chooses to please his family by remaining in St. Louis. It is a gift that all adore beyond treasure and we yearn for in a culture that over the last two decades has been on the brink of losing its fundamental values of the preciousness of life, love and family.
William Bellamy, Kerry Conte, Kathy Fitzgerald, Jay Aubrey Jones and Ashley Robinson round out the cast of this marvelous production which was produced remotely with the dexterous application of green screens and lovely backdrops. In its technique, applied imagination and sheer audacity, the production, not streamed live from a stage, is a book musical with actors separate, home alone. filming, which has never having been done before. This was a realization which John Bell musical director affirmed to Melissa Errico who quipped in her New York Times article that Meet Me in St. Louis was a show where no one actually would meet in St. Louis or anywhere else. Read Melissa Errico’s account here.
Great praise goes to the cast, the creative team and director Charlotte Moore for this Christmas treasure. The Irish Repertory Theatre has exercised their vitality and prodigious cleverness to provide this most American of celebratory entertainments at a time when we crave affirmations of friendship, love, family, togetherness and joy present in the show’s themes. This is one you must not miss.
Irish Repertory Theatre’s Meet Me in St. Louis runs until Saturday, 2nd January. For tickets and times go to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s website. Click Here.
‘A Touch of the Poet’ The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Superb Revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Revelation of Class in America
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s activity during the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing short of award-winning. They have remained stalwart in presenting streaming live productions, filmed productions and filmed productions online by actors who have done their work solo from their own homes, which afterward are seamlessly brought together by technicians.
The latter phenomenon is perhaps the finest example of the tremendous effort the Irish Rep is ready to perform keeping in mind their unction to do no harm to actors, technicians and audience members during this incredibly dangerous time, where if you peruse statistics on Worldometer, the death toll in the U.S. marches toward the numbers of dead during four years of our involvement in WWII. Considering that the COVID atrocities have occurred over a 9 month period under the abdicated watch and depraved indifference of Donald J. Trump and the sleepwalking GOP, the death toll is staggering and egregious.
Thus, global watchers of Irish Repertory Theatre which hail from Australia to Ireland and all parts of the United States, are so grateful for the opportunities that engaged and talented actors and the Irish Rep’s creative team provide. As they unleash their talent and passion to create wonderful artistic performances, the productions help sustain us through this unprecedented crisis in our lives.
In their latest offering Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, the Irish Rep used the magnificent set they had created that was ready for production when the pandemic hit and New York was put on pause. With painstaking coordination, director Ciarán O’Reilly, the actors, technicians and artistic team configured a maverick presentation that launches the Irish Rep into new territory and reveals to other theater companies a way to deal with the vicissitudes of social distancing in performance. Each of the actors filmed their portrayals solo with attention to the staging of their actor/character counterparts.
The result is gobsmacking and actors’ performances are treasures. How they accomplished this feat of interaction keeping it dynamic and vital is beyond entertainment. The production of A Touch of the Poet is a profound recognition that with genius and collaboration, the breathtaking can result. And their collaboration elevates what many consider to be one of O’Neill’s more mediocre plays to one of illustrious depth.
This revival elucidates that in O’Neill’s work there is much that is parallel to our time as we follow the misfortunes and revelations of the humanity of the Melody family. In themes and characterizations we identify with the expose of Con Melody’s self-betrayal. Striking is his wanton self-abuse and the abuse of his wife and daughter as he pursues fantasies that no longer support the vitality of their lives and, in fact, hinder their appreciation of who they are and what they might be.
O’Neill sets his drama in Boston around 1828. The Melody family headed up by the alcoholic, self-destructive fantasist “Con” Melody (exquisitely portrayed by Robert Cuccioli) runs a ramshackle Inn with attached bar. Along with “Con,” are Sara (Belle Aykroyd) the stunning, truth-telling, rebellious foil to her father and Nora ( Kate Forbes) his pliant, subservient, fawning wife. The four live hand to mouth because Con abides in his glory days when he was a fiery and intrepid Major in the Dragoons, serving under the eventually exalted Duke of Wellington.
At the outset of the play, Jamie Cregan (Andy Murray gives a fine performance of Melody’s soldier underling and partner in brawling) provides the backstory of Con’s inner and outer conflict that Con has been unable to confront his entire life. Jamie explains how Con is an erstwhile gentleman with roots from the Irish peasant class that his father struggled to escape from. The father eventually advances himself and carves out an inheritance for Melody who is lifted into the airs of landed gentry and rises to a position of power in the British military.
When Con’s philandering, drinking ways cause him to be sanctioned and ejected from his position as Major, Melody flees to the United States with Nora where they purchase the Inn and raise Sara. Swindled by a Yankee, who lies about the value and prosperity of the Inn, they barely scrape out an existence which is further impoverished by Con’s alcoholism and his inability to make his way in the United States.
Con’s relationship to Nora and Sara varies from drunken rages when he belittles and demeans both to guilty apologies and attempts to make amends with blandishments. Cuccioli balances the drunken bouts and insults with hasty apology that is both humorous and heartfelt. Through his spot-on portrayal we understand the impossibility of Con’s self-hatred and his attempt to escape both his alcoholism and his menial position in the new world as classism and discrimination drive him deeper into self-loathing. Cuccioli is particularly illuminating when he entertains the magical persona of “The Major.” As he affirms his exalted personage in a conveniently placed mirror, quoting Lord Byron, he imagines his long-lost greatness and gentility are still within.
Indeed, Cuccioli’s stance, mien, presence convince us that he was once an individual of great deeds and valor and has fallen on hard times but will remain unbroken and unbowed. Nora adores him for she has “won” this dignitary’s love and that raises her own identity and self-esteem. Kate Forbes is just incredible as she mediates Nora’s self-recriminations, with her subservience to Con as she waits on his every whim. She never reproaches him for his abusiveness, indeed, she accepts his cruelties and disdain as worthy of her low station.
Cuccioli and Forbes relay powerful portrayals of these two individuals as they complete the dance of superior to menial externally which becomes the reverse when we see that Con needs to believe he is genteel and honorable, the stiff-upper-lipped gentleman of quality. However, ultimately, Nora dominates; Nora obliges and encourages him to fulfill her own assumptions about his love, as he lowers himself to rages and miscreant behavior.
Belle Aykroyd’s Sara who challenges Con’s treatment of Nora adds spark and fire to the dynamic of the family. She is the flint that ignites Con and inflames his drunken rages. She fills out the charged, family interplay with an amazing performance of irony and savagery. An instance of this occurs when Sara mocks Con’s puffery and “superiority” by putting on an Irish brogue and acting the menial. Apparently, Con has attempted to teach both Nora and Sara the finer ways, but Nora is unwittingly inflexible and Sara, who “knows better” enjoys defying her father at every turn.
Sara stirs the cauldron of infamy when she entices the guest of a wealthy land-owner to fall in love while she nurses him to health. Through her pursuit of him we learn of Nora’s own desires of greatness realized through her love of Con which becomes the similar road that Sara travels down. To raise her self-esteem in her own eyes and self-love, she becomes sexually involved with Simon Hartford (a blasphemy at the time) despite the threat of his mother Deborah Hartford’s (Mary McCann) disapproval. Deborah Hartford will make sure their relationship is doomed because of their class and economic differences.
In the climax of the play which skirts the edges of physical confrontation, the actors seamlessly convey the action, considering each filmed his/her performance in their own homes. Thanks to the precise staging, it works when Con slaps Sara, when he caresses his wife at the conclusion with a new-found reverence of her patience and concern for him, and when he is physically bold in his attempts to kiss Deborah Hartford. Mary McCann’s staid and well-born Deborah Hartford is the perfect inducement for Con to entrap himself in one more perfidious and humiliating debasement.
From this juncture onward, we anticipate Con’s complete obliteration and the hope of a renewal. O’Neill satisfies; his ironic twists and Con’s ultimate affirmation of the foundations of his soul is as uplifting as it is cathartic. Now, his wife and daughter will have to adjust to this new day and redefine their expectations of their lives. Sara has already begun but the road she has chosen, like her mother’s is hard and treacherous with only her estimation of love to propel her onward.
Kudos to all the actors who negotiated the new medium of filmed staging on film and made it real. Likewise, kudos to the director who shepherded them through with extraordinary results. Last but not least are Alejo Vietti (costume design) Michael Gottlieb (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design and mix) Ryan Rumery (original music) Sarah Nichols (video editor) April Anne Kline production coordinator.
This sensational collaboration magnifies the themes so you can greater appreciate O’Neill’s play of revelation and redemption through confronting one’s own shibboleths and destroying them. The revival shines a refreshing light on A Touch of the Poet and burnishes it with a new glory.
This is a production you must not miss. After this evening’s performance at 8 pm there are three more performances, two Saturday 31 October, and one performance on 1 November at 3 pm. For tickets to the online performances go to the listed site .https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32325?_ga=2.134261553.1367444511.160409768
Incantata by Paul Muldoon is an encomium, a memorial to American artist Mary Farl Powers, Muldoon’s one-time partner and forever friend who resides somewhere in the memories of his imagination. Written in verse that is rhythmic, reminiscent of the stanzaic form popularized by W.B. Yeats, Incantata, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until 15 March, has been fashioned by director Sam Yates and actor Stanley Townsend into a staged production that dramatizes the speaker’s lament, remembrance and praise of his former lover.
Muldoon’s forty-five stanza poem is a “quiet” elegy turned on its head; the speaker known as “The Man,” rages and rants, pivots and emotes poignance and sorrow that Powers did nothing to stem her lifeblood draining away, gnawed by breast cancer which caused her untimely death. For indeed, in her perspective it was “pre-determined.” The Man doesn’t detail the specifics of why she thought this, only that she believed that the cancer might be treatable with alternative therapies. For her, these treatments did not work. Indeed, her death was determined by her own hand by not going for mainstream medical treatment which The Man believes could have saved her.
To bring Muldoon’s fervid poetry into a staged monologue, director Sam Yates shepherds Stanley Townsend with actions that appear to be organic and intrinsic to Powers. She was essentially a print artist who also worked in cast paper and paper sculpture. She mentored other artists (non printmakers) to bring their work into the mediums of etching and lithography. She helped to found the Graphic Studio.
Before The Man-Muldoon’s poetic speaker (Stanley Townsend) takes the stage, we note an artist’s studio where his/her works hang, prints cascading down in repeated patters of various colors. Until The Man picks up a potato and carves it out and employs it to create his colorful artistic patterns, we do not realize that the massive pile of red-skinned potatoes on the far corner of the studio opposite the artist’s wall of work has anything to do with creating the prints which hang there.
Through Townsend’s felt authenticity and live, on-stage printmaking, Yates staging, and the use of live camera projections which focus on “The Man,” or becomes a stand-in for an objective Powers who bestows her criticism, always there is a florid pouring out of raw emotion. In his soul grief, love, and too many emotions to categorize because they are not neatly rendered or subdued by logic, we gauge the impact of Powers on The Man’s life. Townsend’s and Yates’ collaboration yields an intriguing, enthralling and ever-present, moment-to-moment happening that is emotional art and equivalent to myth-making.
To symbolize Powers’ artistic endeavors and the nature of art’s power to heal and effect the transference of love, Townsend’s The Man actively creates prints using a potato cut, instead of a woodcut. He produces a multicolored series of duplications of form comprising prints from each show. First, the potato’s use is fascinating. It is also referenced in the poem: a “potato-mouth,” that “mouth as prim and proper as it’s full of self-opprobrium.” This reference moves in a refrain to references of the lazy, indolent character Belacqua in Dante’s Inferno and by extension to Samuel Beckett’s stories employing the character Belacqua. The Man, Muldoon’s speaker “crouches” with Belacqua, and then in an extrapolation to Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky of Waiting for Godot attempts to discern what is, in fact, unknowable.
Such are the characteristics of Townsend’s “Man” who attempts to reason with himself about Powers’ fateful decision and blames her for it, yet wonders at the courage or fatalism of it. Perhaps it is a miserable turnaround because by rejecting treatment that may have saved her, Powers deprived the world of her additional art and her teaching presence at the Graphic Studio.
With this evocation of Powers (her vitality helped to establish the Graphic Studio Dublin and drive it from its basement inception to a huge warehouse) not even the memories and reminiscences can be pinned down. Much of their time together in Dublin and Belfast remain elusive fragments. Evanescent phrases are the moments in time that Muldoon/The Man had with Powers consigned to memories of “great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein” and of “what’s mine is yours and yours is mine.” Of “all that is left” of their life together, he lists in a series of things they did, places they went, and flowers they saw, like oxlips and cowslips that had personal, intimate, visual meaning.
How does one even codify into a magical intoning, the essence of another human being and represent with words the relationship that resulted from the ephemeral bonds of love, remorse, argument, and the creative fountain of artistic impulse that the relationship engendered? One puts it on stage to dramatize it. Incantata has found its home in the drama.
Muldoon’s speaker, The Man, infused with Stanley Townsend’s riveting performance remains an incantation to Power’s art, and to art, and the creative impulse that manifests in the arts. That manifestation is born and borne of suffering and is as simplistic, revelatory and symbolic as a bird picking up a “strand of bloody wool from a strand of barbed wire in the aftermath of Chicamauga or Culloden” most probably to use it to build a nest. By referencing two bloody battles, Chicamauga, the second bloodiest battle of the American Civil War and the battle of Culloden where the British quelled the Jacobite uprising, The Man reveals that in the extremis of pain and death, art can be birthed to bring healing and new life, or as Muldoon/The Man aptly states, “a monument to the human heart that shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.”
Townsend’s enlivening performance, succinctly directed by Yates brings Muldoon’s incantation of love, death, remorse, mourning, art and the creative impulse which seeks to heal to a striking dramatic iteration. This is a production which bears seeing a few times because of Townsend and because of the richness of the poem’s language, which I had the good fortune to examine.
Special kudos go to the following creative artists who helped stir the pot into its enchanting evocation: Rosanna Vize (set & costume design) Paul Keogan (lighting design) Sinéad Diskin (sound design) Jack Phelan (video design) Teho Teardo (composer).
Incantata is in its U.S. premiere on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th). It runs with no intermission until 15th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
What do William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, AE, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore and Katharine Tynan have in common? Their initials are carved on a tree growing on the property of Coole Park, Gort, in County Galway, the estate Lady Gregory inherited after the death of her husband Sir William Henry Gregory.
That is just one of the tidbits told by the spirit of Lady Gregory (1852-1932) who inhabits the production Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until the 22nd of March. Written by Lady Augusta Gregory with additional material by Ciarán O’Reilly and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, the delightful production reveals the life and times of one of the venerable, wry-humored progenitors of the Irish Literary Revival and co- founder of The Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn.
The production stars Úna Clancy as the lively and candid Lady Gregory who fills out another role in Lady Gregory’s play “McDonough’s Wife at the end of Act II. James Russell portrays a variety of roles and is the humorous Mike McInerney in Lady Gregory’s, “Workhouse Ward” and the Sheep shearer in “McDonough’s Wife.” Russell is erudite and reserved in his portrayal of the philosophical literary genius, poet, playwright William Butler Yeats. And he is the kindly, avuncular Sir William Gregory who was Lady Gregory’s senior by thirty-five years.
We learn they had a son Robert, the pride of their lives whose death Robert mystically foreshadowed in a dream which his cousin also mysteriously had. He died during WWI in a play crash in a death which his mother like any devoted mother never could reconcile easily. Sir William Gregory attempted to practice noblesse oblige for the suffering Irish people under his care at a time when it was least appreciated. And his actions Lady Gregory implies were mischaracterized and reshaped to satisfy another agenda.
Terry Donnelly of the lyrical voice, spot-on authenticity and versatility portrays Anne Horniman friend of the literary lights who helped fund the Irish National Theatre Society. Terry Donnelly also portrays Mary Sheridan, Lady Gregory’s influential, native-speaking Irish nanny who teaches her about the history and folklore of the area. Donnelly constantly surprises with her characterizations as Honor Donohoe in Gregory’s “Workhouse Ward,” and portrayals of Widow Quin, the Narrator, Marian and the character of the Hag 1 in “McDonough’s Wife.”
John Keating rounds out this exceptional ensemble with versatility and humor portraying notaries Wilfred Blunt, Edward Martyn, John Quinn, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. He is hysterical and nuanced as Michael Miskell the down-and-out companion of Mike McInerney who wheedles McInerney to remain in impoverishment when he might have stayed with his well-off sister Honor Donohoe (Terry Donnelly). And he is the poignant and raging McDonough who returns from his journeys to discover that the townspeople have eschewed his wife as an “outsider.” Their rejection is particularly loathsome because she dies in childbirth and no one in the xenophobic community wishes to join together to memorialize her passing or help bury her. Dark are Lady G’s themes of bigotry, alienation, shame and guilt in the revelatory “McDonough’s Wife.”
The personification of the Irish literary greats and the effect of their productions (the story of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is particularly acute and ironic) is fascinating. Their discussions reveal the history of the period memorably with gusto. Gregory’s emblematic presence delivered with good will by Clancy makes the narrative of Lady Gregory’s life ring with truth.
This production is many things: a historical encomium, a mini-revival of Irish playwrights, an affirmation and revisiting of that vital Irish literary renaissance in the early twentieth century and beyond. Importantly, it is a celebration of a woman who accomplished much for Irish theater and cemented the connections between Ireland and the United States, something which Americans need to be reminded of.
The added material by O’Reilly with Lady Gregory’s own words from her autobiography and published journals and from insightful articles by professors and researchers into the amazing time, O’Reilly cobbles together thoughtfully and humorously. The actors enliven the true to life artists, but O’Reilly’s narrative spoken by Gregory with various quotes from real personages coheres dramatically so that the audience remains engaged.
Critically, O’Reilly adds the two productions written by Lady Gregory which reveal her breadth and scope from humorous dialogue and conflict in “The Workhouse,” (finely engendered by director and actors) to the reality of the isolation and xenophobia of the the community where “MDonough’s Wife” takes place. The drama of the latter reflective of the bigotry of isolated communities regarding anyone from another social spectrum i.e. their inability to embrace with Christian grace “the other” has currency for us today. Gregory hit upon a strain of the human condition that is pernicious and seems everpresent despite the hope of religion to expurgate it.
I thought the set was functional and symbolic; the dark green walls with nooks and crannies was where actors sat in character waiting to add their portrayals to the grand stew that was being created. Seamlessly, the set afforded them the opportunity to don costumes secreted there so that they could quickly step into the 22 roles the four actors portrayed with authenticity. The inclusion of the tree with the famous initials of Yeats, et. al and the music, lighting and sound effects added to the production’s appeal.
Clancy’s natural rapport with the audience is expertly directed and developed. The idea to incorporate Lady Gregory’s ritual practice of distributing a Barm Brack to her cast and the audience was fun. The cast distributed the Barm Brack (the delicious fruitcake was moister and less adamantine than the one my Irish-American aunt made) to us. It was a perfect treat after the humorous, ironic conclusion of “Workshouse Ward,” at the end of Act I.
This production is a gem and I do think that educationally it needs to find an audience because of its revelations and historical grist regarding Irish literary history. Above all it is a memorialization and celebration of Lady Gregory, her works, her amazing friends. And, if you like, you may consider taking a trip to the West Country of Ireland to visit Coole Park. There, you will still see the walled garden and “The Autograph Tree” with the initials of Sean O’Casey, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, AE and others, and be able to imagine a time when these writers enjoyed a unique camaraderie and received sustenance for their souls in a little piece of heaven on earth.
Noted are the creative team: Charlie Corcoran (set design) David Toser (costume Design) Michael O’Connor (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design).
Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory runs with 1 intermission at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th) until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘London Assurance’ directed by Charlotte Moore at The Irish Repertory Theatre, a Rollicking Christmas Treat
London Assurance, the vibrant farce by Dion Boucicault, directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Rep is the perfect production for the Christmas season to keep the cheer bright. The acting is superb, the pacing of high jinx is acutely shepherded by Moore. Altogether, there is everything to like and enjoy and nothing to find fault with in this production which runs until 26 January.
A mix between a drawing room comedy and slapstick without the physicality but oodles of wordplay, Boucicault’s London Assurance also satirizes stock character types, social classes and the notions of marriage for convenience which were beginning to be blown away by the idea of love matches, at the time the play takes place Christmastime, 1841.
The action begins when dissolute Charles Courtly (Ian Holcomb) arrives with his friend Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino) in the morning hours after a night of hard drinking and partying. Charles lives with his father Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy is perfection as the fop who is easily duped by his own puffery). Courtly believes his son to be the innocent, demure, hard-working student who eschews gambling and drinking. Charles is the antithesis. Servant Cool (Elliot Joseph) lies to protect Charles.
After Dazzle and Cool carry Charles off in a drunken stupor, Sir Courtly enters in his dressing gown wishing for his breakfast. Courtly reminds Cool of the recent most important events of his life. He and his friend Max Harkaway (the fine Brian Keane) have arranged for the elderly Courtly’s marriage to Max’s young, beautiful niece Grace (Caroline Strang) in exchange for an obviation of debts, and her dowry. If Courtly or Grace nullifies the arrangement, Grace’s money will be Charles’ inheritance.
The arc of development involves the foiling of Courtly’s plans when all visit Max’ country estate in Gloucestershire where Courtly is supposed to finalize his engagement to Grace. Max has invited Dazzle and of course Dazzle brings along Charles for the adventure and fun the visit promises to be, though Sir Courtly doesn’t realize that Charles has joined the party. At Max’ estate, Grace meets a disguised Charles who poses as Augustus Hamilton to dupe his father who believes him to be home studying. Both Holcomb and McPhillamy pull off the bad disguise non-recognition and Sir Courtly’s dubious response to his son’s “lookalike” with great humor.
Charles, ever the playboy, flirts with Grace unaware that she is his future mother. For her part Grace is sanguine about marrying Sir Courtly, but falls in a hot love with Charles. What are they to do? How can they put off Sir Courtly and Uncle Max Harkaway and effect their marriage to each other? By this point in the plot the playwright has drawn us in for Sir Courtly is no particular catch and to American audiences today, the idea of a woman having to drop her dowry in the lap of an elderly gentleman in order to survive is almost unthinkable, especially when the marriage has been arranged for her.
In the succeeding scenes we meet the lovely friends of Max, Lady Gay Spanker (the wonderfully comedic Rachel Pickup) and her ancient-looking husband Adolphus Spanker (Robert Zukerman draws many laughs with his outrage about his wife leaving him) who is vital, spry and a force of nature that Lady Gay Spanker loves as her protector. However, when Charles beseeches Lady Gay for her help to dissuade his father from sealing “the deal” with Max for Grace, Lady Gay thinks of a humorous idea to break up plans of Sir Courtly’s marriage.
In great good fun she seduces the pompous Sir Courtly to fall in love with her behind her husband’s and Grace’s back. Sir Courtly who believes himself to be twenty years younger and on the cutting edge of fashion, is tricked by Lady Gay. He rushes after her to win her kisses and affection. Of course, when Spanker hears that his wife may separate from him, his reaction is hysterical. Meanwhile, Lady Gay is having the time of her life in harmless fun to help out two young lovers who doubt each other’s love. The complications rise and Lady Gay works her miracle for a good cause, until…
This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this humorous LOL production to appreciate how the playwright adds complex and humorous twists to the relationships and magnifies mishaps and errors raising the stakes and jokes to a delightful climax with a duel.
Charlotte Moore’s sense of comedic timing, what does and doesn’t work has been engineered to a fine froth so that the actors appear to be these authentic, vivacious, funny individuals. I cannot imagine Colin McPhillamy, Ian Holcomb, Rachel Pickup, Robert Zukerman, Caroline Strang, Evan Zes (the funny conniving lawyer) Brian Keane, Craig Wesley Divino, Elliot Joseph and Meg Hennessy sounding and behaving any differently in real life than they do onstage. Their performances are stunning. Their timing is spot-on.
Interestingly, the cast has managed to portray their characters so that they are not “the types” they appear to be, but are funny because their traits are humorous. Evan Zes as the “sneaky, obtrusive” lawyer Mark Meddle dismissed by Meg Hennessy’s “go-to-girl” Pert, with the accusation of “slander” is an example. In the hands of these actors this is accomplished with seamless effort. Additionally, the actors handle the asides to the audience with an easy, intimate confessional tone that enhances the comedy. Finally, we enjoy the foibles of each character whom the actors have invested in with their perceptive, canny skills.
The sets sparkle with beauty and apparent luxury thanks to James Noone’s scenic design. The interiors are befitting of what one would expect of Sir Courtly’s and Max’s residences. Likewise, Sara Jean Tosetti’s costume design and Robert-Charles Vallance’s hair designs authenticate the period and social status of the characters with excellence. Lady Gay’s purples (I loved her costumes that reflected her expansive, lively character) matched with a lighter shade of purple for her husband’s cravat (?). As a couple they reflected a refined, spiffy, fascinating dynamic. Indeed the creative team’s techniques and strategies inspired by Charlotte Moore’s vision for the production were not overblown, but were “a Goldilocks.” Rounding out the team are Michael Gottlieb’s lighting desgin and M. Florian Staab’s sound design. The music was lighthearted and chosen for the splendid mood of the production.
Once again Irish Repertory Theatre proves its stalwart magnificence for the season with this marvelous comedy that Charlotte Moore, the ensemble and creative team have imbued with their joie de vivre and experience. If you don’t see it, you will have missed a special production. London Assurance runs with one intermission until 26 January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Dublin Carol by Conor McPherson directed with just the right tone and irony by Ciarán O’Reilly is a seminal play about the spirit of Christmas that is bestowed upon the principal character John, superbly portrayed by Jeffrey Bean. McPherson chooses this self-hating alcoholic protagonist to reflect humanity’s hope of redemption from broken promises, regrets and soul sins lathered with guilt and remorse.
McPherson’s John, like many, reveals an overarching longing for change from the boredom of self-loathing, loneliness and recriminations. During the course of the play we see how the playwright elucidates that such change never happens quickly, but does come with subtle, gradual almost unnoticeable shifts when least expected. In John’s instance it is the visit from his daughter Mary (Sarah Street) whom he hasn’t seen in ten years that fans the flames that have been ignited by his boss the mortician Noel who saved him from one stage of himself. When she comes to tell him about the condition of his wife, her mother whom he abandoned long ago, the conversation prompts his movement to admit his miserable state when he left the family. He was in hell.
Above all McPherson’s work is about love and forgiveness. Such love is given by John’s daughter. And it is an irony that John is so over-bloated with guilt and remorse that he cannot forgive himself and thinks himself completely unworthy of it. But it is her expression of love and respect (she admits she also hates him) that helps him make a final determination. The decision moves him toward a kind and thoughtful resolution with his family which by the end of the play portends a new door will open in John’s life that may lift him up from his self-hatred into self-forgiveness.
Though the setting is Dublin Christmastime, in the office of a funeral parlor where life and death sit side by side, the title references a widow Carol who lived in Dublin that John mentions he had a long-time affair with. The title also alludes to a Carol as a song heralding the good news of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Of course, Christ’s birth symbolizes that redemption, reformation, forgiveness and love are possible for the great and small and even someone as “rotten” as John perceives himself to be.
The characterizations are drawn clearly and we become engaged in the simple interactions between Mark (Cillian Hegarty) and John in the first segment, John and his daughter Mary in the second and John and Mark in the third. The arc of development grows out of these interactions and the nature of the conversations which become more revelatory and intimate bring about a change in John’s character.
As Mark and John sit down for tea and a respite from their labors assisting Mark’s sick Uncle Noel (a mortician) with the external arrangements of a young person’s funeral while Noel is in the hospital, we first learn about John and a bit about the twenty-year-old Mark. John shares his self-perceptions and generally blames his lack of discipline and care for his family because of alcohol. He enjoys drinking. But when Mark’s Uncle Noel gave him a job to help in the office with the funerals, John’s life improved and he lifted himself up from the bad state he was in when Noel met him.
John’s character grows on us because he holds little back and digs down into the depths of his self-loathing in each segment, taking off on a racetrack in his confession and heart-to-heart with daughter Mary to whom he apologizes for his miserable treatment and abandonment of the family. It is clear that there was no physical harm. Indeed, his own father beat his mother and John does not follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, he lands on the fact that he didn’t stop his father and was a coward and felt self-hatred for selfishly, brutally not intervening because he feared getting beaten along with his mother.
However, even after John apologizes profusely for his behavior to Mary, he knows it isn’t enough. Clearly, he despises himself and wishes he could erase the memory of who he is along with his former identity and behaviors with his family. The self-disgust moves him to say he wishes he had never been born. Of course the more he admits fault, and makes such profound declarations, the more we identify with him and find his authenticity human, real and poignant. Jeffrey Bean is truly adroit in the role. He strikes all the notes clearly. He manifests John’s self-disgust with the nuance that John longs to be a different person, but is afraid he will let himself down by letting his family down once more.
For their part Mary and Mark become John’s sounding boards, yet he clearly engages them and asks about their lives. When he discovers the news that Mary brings and the subsequent request that goes with it, the situation becomes a way that he can make up for his behavior in the past. He and Mary confess each other’s faults to one another, an important step toward forgiveness. But can John trust himself to do the right thing and stick to his decision? The irony is this: if he fulfills the request he will have to confront his past with the one he most abused and hurt, his wife from whom he never obtained a divorce. His guilt is overwhelming!
As his daughter leaves with the understanding that John will go with her to visit her mother who is dying, she importunes him not to drink any more and to be ready at a later time when she will drive him to the hospital. Of course, flashing lights go on. It is as if the request to not drink triggers John with perverse reverse psychology. The segment closes leaving John contemplating what to do. To drink? To make it up to his wife, daughter and son? Or just to escape somewhere out of their reach?
At the top of the third segment we discover John caves to self-loathing and guilt. He has been celebrating “Christmas.” Mark interrupts him only to discover John was too overwhelmed with drink to pick up his money at the bank. During the course of their interchange, John lays down a rant which is pure McPherson replete with irony and sardonic humor as he relates how his affair with Carol and her unconditional love drove him to the end of himself and the dregs of barrels of alcohol. At this point it is apparent, especially when he begins to put away the Christmas decorations that he has no intention of making it up to his family or going with his daughter. He is back to square one and will be on another bender and into the abyss without Noel to save him a second time.
McPherson’s characterizations and themes are spot-on. Throughout, this work is filled with dark humor which resonates in truthfulness. And in the hands of Jeffrey Bean guided by O’Reilly, the ironies spill out with fervor, especially in the last section of the play when John attempts to counsel Mark not to feel guilty about ending it with his girlfriend. John’s groveling diatribe about the stages of his drunks is also humorous. But the confession and John’s setting a terrible example for Mark does both characters good. Hearing the pain and misery of the stages of drunkenness would give anyone pause about drinking to oblivion.
The ensemble work is tight and O’Reilly keeps the production resonating with the wisdom and revelations that McPherson suggests in his themes. Kudos to the creative team who bring it all together: Charlie Corcoran (scenic design) Leon Dobkowski (costume design) Michael Gottlieb (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design) Ryan Rumery (original music).
See Dublin Carol for the uplifting performances in this subtle and different McPherson work. It is running at Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd St between 6th and 7th) with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: CLICK HERE.
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.