The phenomenal Belfast Girls in its New York Premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre takes place in 1850 during Ireland’s “An Gorta Mor” (The Great Starvation) on the ship the Inchinnan. Five women who have struggled through the Great Famine are chosen to leave Ireland. The trip will take them to the colony of Australia to embark on a better life. With dreams and hopes, the women undergo a three month voyage and mentally prepare themselves for the desires of their heart. What they discover on their journey is a personal and historical truth that they must confront the moment they disembark.
With Nicola Murphy’s incisive direction, the effective and keenly crafted, functional design of women’s quarters below deck (Chika Shimizu) creates a sense of the confined space they endure. The superb cast transports the audience into the minds and hearts of the Belfast Girls, the most raucous, riotous and infamous of the women accepted into the Orphan Emigration Scheme. The Scheme established by Earl Henry Grey in the 1840s sent 4000 orphaned women from Ireland to Australia to relieve Ireland’s overcrowded workhouses and poorhouses from the ravages of the Great Famine.
Under the largesse of Grey’s Scheme we watch as five women from disparate Irish backgrounds bunk together on the Inchinnan and travel for three months down the coast of Africa and around Cape Horn to become “rich” farmers’ wives, servants and workers in Australia.
Jaki McCarrick’s exceptional play profoundly delves into the lives of these five women. All relate the horrors, and organized terrorism of British landlord evictions and burning of homes they’ve seen or experienced. Later in Act II as the truth is gradually revealed to be more terrible, it is mentioned that merchants made money from shipments of grain for export instead of feeding those starving when the crop failed in what has been identified as the Irish genocide. Each of the women at the outset are grateful to be fleeing “An Gorta Mor” raging in Belfast. However, a few regret leaving what has been their home for more than two decades. They are anxious to face the unknown.
The play opens as the women settle into their bunks and unpack their meager belongings. We watch as they change their street clothes to the blue uniform “orphan” dresses the matron and officials have given them to wear on their journey. Immediately, from their behavior and accents we understand these women are from different backgrounds, ages and environs.
Judith Noone (Caroline Strange), a Jamaican mixed-race woman drips worldly experience. She exposes the fact that Ellen Clarke (Labhaoise Magee) and Hannah Gibney (the golden voiced Mary Mallen) are public women/prostitutes, despite their pretensions that they have lived otherwise. Importantly, with a sense of autonomy as sex workers, these three have staved off death and starvation where others, bound up by religion with no way out, died and were buried in mass graves. Of all of the five “orphans,” Caroline Strange’s Judith, is the most grounded, authentic and realistic. Blunt and directed, she is a natural leader who chides and commands the rest of the women, reminding them of their purpose to rise up from the lower classes to respectability and success, so they might forge a new identity with this incredible opportunity.
Gradually, as we watch their interactions and the dynamic of the group as they squabble, insult and demean each other with words and sometimes with blows, McCarrick reveals that each woman, save Judith, is unable to confront the dark hell of guilt and self-loathing within. It is obvious that they’ve had to compromise their autonomy, integrity, goodness and self-respect living a life of extreme self-loathing as men’s footstools. Clarke and Gibney are familiar with each other as they throw epithets and verbally attack each other’s vulnerability. Judith is no less insulting in reminding them that they must control themselves and not be physically easy with the deckhands and men on the ship because an unwanted pregnancy will destroy their chances to meet accessible men and marry. Clearly, Clarke, Gibney and Judith have shared understanding and experiences that have been traumatic and soul-crushing.
On the other hand Sarah Jane Wylie (Sarah Street, and the day I saw the production, Owen Laheen) is quiet and mild-mannered. She stays to herself, sews a bonnet and doesn’t interact or insult the others, initially. She shares that her brother has been in Australia for almost two years and has encouraged her with stories of success and the promise of a land of prosperity and goodness.
Into their midst comes another girl whom they must make room for in their small living space before they sail. Molly Durcan (Aida Leventaki) is from Sligo. The others attempt to make her as comfortable as possible, though she is not in a bunk bed. They give her a piece of bread which she devours immediately; her frail and extremely thin body indicate the troubles she’s experienced. As they rearrange their living quarters, the ship is leaving port and a few go up to say goodbye to Ireland for the last time.
Judith forthrightly declaims she will never miss Belfast and plans to bury all of the memories in her new life and identity in Australia. She suggests the other women do the same. Hannah Gibney forgets her misery and is sentimental, putting “a false tint” on her life in Belfast. Judith confronts Hannah with the truth. She tells the others that her father sold her into prostitution for alcohol and must forget the terrors of a culture which provokes such behaviors. This revelation strips away Hannah’s pretense and denial. Judith encourages her and the others to redirect and focus on her new goals and new life in Australia. During the three month voyage, they must mentally prepare themselves with plans and goals for their future.
Mallen’s and Strange’s performance of this scene make this into an important moment. Not only do we understand their mixed emotions, though the life they leave behind is full of misery. Nevertheless, it is the only life they have known. Now, they face uncertainty. They haven’t read any travelogs to understand what they will be up against because there are none. And indeed, Hannah can’t read. When the ship leaves port, there is no turning back.
McCarrick identifies the dangers of the emigrant experience which still pertains today (exploitation, uncertainty, loss of identity). She highlights two important conditions for these women. They have been prostitutes plying their trade and skills as the only skills they know. Secondly, they are third class citizens. Though Hannah speaks of the Englishman that she will marry, rejecting her own nationality, this fantasy is an extreme that the other women point out to her.
We realize these women are naive; they are not prepared for what is going to happen to them, floating on a “wing and a prayer.” That it will be anything but a bed of roses is inferred by the irony of Hannah’s hopes, the vacancy of the other women’s responses and the hidden clues in McCarrick’s writing.
What is clear is that each of them has already “jumped off the cliff into the unknown.” Hoping for something better is the tremendous risk they take, born out of courage to seek freedom from the enslavement of poverty, paternalism and oppression by the British in Ireland. However, will they be able to continue with the courage of their convictions in Australia?
When Molly sees a rat by her sleeping space in the middle of the night, other arrangements are made. Judith softens her persona and allows her to join her in her bunk away from the rat. Thus, begins a relationship between the two women which the others may or may not be aware of that blossoms into love and affection. The intimate scene between them is beautifully, tastefully directed by Murphy and the fight and intimacy director Leana Gardella.
However, there is the danger that the Catholic judgments of the other women will censure and condemn the lovers. As it turns out Judith becomes Molly’s protector and Molly gives Judith her books, one of which includes the writings of Marx and Engels. Reading these, Judith begins to understand what Molly mentioned to them when she first arrived.
Women deserve their own rights and autonomy. In fact as Molly discusses her bold yearning to become an actress and play Puck, she also reveals that in other areas of Europe and the United States, women are gathering in groups and organizing for the right to vote. And women are speaking out against male chauvinism, paternalism, colonial oppression and exclusion which keeps women powerless. Judith’s knowledge grows and we understand that she and Molly have formed a close bond. At the least, the others begin a period of enlightened freedom they were never aware of before they boarded the Inchinnan.
However, in Act II all of what has been a hopeful blessing on the voyage as the women begin to grow their new, free identities, is upended during a roaring storm at sea. The storm’s effects are stylistically staged and shepherded by Murphy with the help of the movement director Erin O’Leary. As the women pray together for support during the frightening hurricane that threatens to swamp the ship and kill them, another storm breaks out among them. Tensions and tempers rage. An unimaginable lie is exposed. The revelation destroys and exposes all of their lies. Judith who has become her own person and lies for no one, attempts to ameliorate the emotional explosions of the women against each other to no avail.
This is no spoiler alert. Act II brings a magnificent resolution to the mysterious threads that have been left undone in Act I. The violence that occurs is shocking and believable. The sound and lighting designers (Caroline Eng, Michael O’Conner) do a wonderful job of striking our imaginations with the storm’s effects. They help to create the terror in the scene and the resulting aftermath.
By the conclusion Judith puts the mysterious pieces together of why Earl Henry Grey has created the Emigration Orphan Scheme with the clerics. The final blow of reality is made manifest which Judith and perhaps Sarah and Ellen understand, but Hannah is too broken to receive. Nevertheless, Judith affirms she will never give up on her hopes and new found self-empowerment on the Inchinnan. She is resolute and will continue to take care of Molly Durcan and nurture her with her love. Confronting her own lies and devastation, Sarah becomes more accepting and forgiving. However, it is Ellen who leaves us with the most vital of thoughts. “Who knows what dreams were born on the Inchinnan. If it’s not us who will have those freedoms you talked of…then maybe our daughters will…”
Belfast Girls is rich with history and incisive with characterizations that keep us engaged in this real drama of passion, anger at injustice and powerlessness and hope. The characters are portrayed with spot-on authenticity, by the wonderful ensemble. Kudos to Gregory Grene the music consultant who drew on the songs “Sliabb Gallion Brae,” “A Lark in the Clear Air,” “Mo Ghile Mear” and “Rare Willie,” all traditional Irish folksongs. Kudos to all the creative team and to China Lee, responsible for costume design and Rachael Geier for hair & wig design.
This is one to see, especially if you have Irish ancestors. If you don’t, but have ancestors who emigrated on ships that crossed the oceans to bring their progeny a better life in a more prosperous setting, the experience depicted in this production is directive and should draw you to learn more. For tickets and times to see Belfast Girls at the Irish Repertory Theatre go to their website: https://irishrep.org/
John Milton Synge stated of the “things which nourish the imagination, humor is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it.” Two of Synge works which employ satire and raucous humor to entertain and make fun of stereotypes found amongst the Irish country folk around 1903 are The Tinker’s Wedding and In the Shadow of the Glen. Directed by Charlotte Moore and starring wonderful actors from those often seen at The Irish Repertory Theatre, the enjoyable evening of these two Synge works flies by. One leaves with a belly-full of laughter and a smile on their face.
Both plays are set in 1903 County Wicklow in Ireland before Ireland was a Republic. And one imagines a fairly desolate area is the terrain where the humorous events take place in each work.
In The Tinker’s Wedding, the cast sings an upbeat folk song about a wedding where one pictures the happy townsfolk dancing and carousing “heel for heel and toe for toe, arm and arm and row on row, all for ‘Marie’s Wedding.'” The ebullient mood of the piece displayed in the music and vibrancy of the actors quickly shifts to argument between Michael Byrne (John Keating), and Sarah Casey (Jo Kinsella), who are companions but who have not yet married.
The irony is clear for couples getting married in Ireland and elsewhere. On the wedding day everyone is happy. Afterward, marriage is a different can of beans and couples are as miserable as they can stand each other to be. Interestingly, Michael Byrne and Sarah Casey have jumped to the difficulties without being married. And now with a marriage ceremony to be conducted by the priest who is nearby, perhaps they may have some joy.
As they argue about the ring which Michael makes for Sarah which doesn’t fit, Michael questions why they need to be married at all. Sarah replies that she is renown in the county as the Beauty of Ballinacree and could get a number of the men who have acknowledged her beauty to marry her if Michael refuses. She says this to spur Michael from his intractable reluctance. However, Michael is having none of her boasting and doesn’t in the least act jealous, but uses her self-puffery as an occasion for irony and humor. He likens other individuals’ comments about her to the names of the horses that race at Arklow and refers to her easily swallowing the words of “liars.” Their banter is humorous and we question why they should be married after the fact of their having been together, especially since Sarah threatens to leave him because of his funny but insulting retorts.
When the Priest (Sean Gormley) comes into their midst, Sarah bargains with him for the money he wants to marry them. We question the Priest’s “high and mighty” attitude and think that he is classist because he won’t perform the ceremony for free for tinkers who roam the country side, have no roots and persuing questionable activities in the dark of the moon. Later in the play it comes out why he is reluctant; he is aware of their thefts in the neighborhood, though they manage to get away with it. Nevertheless, he agrees to marry them for money and a “tin can” that Michael has been laboring over.
Enter Mary Byrne (the humorous Terry Donnelly), Michael’s mother. Tipsy, cradling a bottle of alcohol like a baby, she is a humorous caricature of one who obviously enjoys slaking her thirst daily. For hospitality and “friendship,” she offers a drink to the Priest to manipulate him to favor her son and daughter-in-law’s marriage request.
Afterwards, when Mary Byrne is alone, she sees an opportunity to steal from her son an item promised to the Priest which she then will sell for drink. The complications arise between the characters. Mary Byrne throws the couple’s wedding plans into the bog after they discover she double crosses them. They double cross the priest who vows not to get revenge. However, he has a better plan for their reckoning which they can never flee, though they scramble with their belongings far away from the praying cleric.
In the Shadow of the Glen, a Tramp (John Keating), knocks on Nora Burke’s (Jo Kinsella) door. Lonesome with her husband possibly just having died since he hasn’t moved or made a peep, Nora opens the door and invites him in from the storm. Hospitably, she offers the Tramp a drink and tells him the story of her husband who she fears is dead and who cursed her not to lay a hand on him if he died in his bed. Only his sister can prepare him for the funeral ceremony and burial, Nora tells the Tramp. Their conversation is laced with spooky mystery as the subjects range from the quick to the dead and Nora explains that her husband was a queer old man who went up to the hills where he was “thinking dark thoughts.”
When she asks the Tramp to see if her husband Dan Burke (Sean Gormley) is cold and dead, the Tramp protests that he doesn’t want to bring down the curse on his own head. They continue to discuss their tribulations and the death of one they both know until finally Nora tells him she must find the young farmer who would do chores for them and who the Tramp ran into on his way toward the Burkes. She will ask the farmer to stop by with her, check on her husband. If he is dead, the next morning he can tell the village that Dan Burke has passed. Most possibly, Burke’s sister who lives about ten miles away will then be notified. Nora asks the Tramp to stay with her husband’s dead body until she returns.
One anticipates what will happen next which is absolutely hysterical. The hijinx continue after Nora returns with the young Michael Dara (Ciaran Bowling), who is well off and appears to be interested in Nora’s inheritance from Dan Burke’s estate. With the body not yet “cold” nor burned in ashes, Dara makes plans for Nora to be his wife. However, she is not so easily persuaded. And as events transpire, the humorous explosions (I belly laughed so heard) heighten then resolve into an ironic ending.
Charlotte Moore strikes just the right tone, shepherding her cast into the humor inherent in Synge’s characterizations, as he satirizes these couples and the relationships that bind them that can’t quite be referred to as loving. In each instances we understand the importance of money, the fear of destitution and the solitude of the environs contributing to the dynamic and topsy turvy events.
The music and song that introduces each work sets the scene and establishes the tenor of Synge’s plays. Marie’s Wedding appropriately opens The Tinker’s Wedding sung by the entire cast and accompanied on guitar by Sean Gormley. As the character of Mary in The Tinker’s Wedding, Terry Donnelly sings with lyrical humor “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,” a traditional Irish ballad, and two refrains, one from “A Lonesome Ditch in Ballygan,” and the other from “Whisper With One.” Between the Acts in The Tinker’s Wedding, Sean Gormley sings and performs his original song, “A Smile Upon My Face.” In the second play, In The Shadow of the Glen, Ciaran Bowling’s clear, bell-ringing voice beautifully interprets “Red is the Rose,” a traditional Gaelic ballad.
Moore has cleverly employed the space of the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre to suggest the settings with whimsy and attention to details in the play. The economy of props and accessibility to them is thoughtful and acute as always, thanks to creatives Daniel Geggatt (set design), David Toser (costume design), Michael O’Connor (lighting design), Nathanael Brown (co-sound design) Kimberly S. O’Loughlin (co-sound design).
Two by Synge is a highly enjoyable and finely presented example of why Synge’s work lasts in its evocation of human nature and particular Irish themes conveyed with light hearted humor and grace. For tickets and times go to the Irish Repertory Theatre website: https://irishrep.org/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6pOTBhCTARIsAHF23fLAjBdNTydq_KkznLEVR1YEogYRKeF4w1gWXnS8RFwGqLnyR5GBZTMaAmfpEALw_wcB
‘A Touch of the Poet’ The Irish Rep’s Brilliant Revival Exceeds Its Wonderful Online Performance. Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Poet’ is Amazing Glorious Theater!
From the moment Cornelius “Con” Melody (Robert Cuccioli) appears, shaking as he holds onto the stair railing of the beautifully wrought set by Charlie Corcoran, we are riveted. Indeed, we stay mesmerized throughout to the explosive conclusion of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s A Touch of the Poet by Eugene O’Neill. Compelled by Cuccioli’s smashing performance of Con, we are invested in this blowhard’s presentiments, pretenses and self-betrayal, as he unconsciously wars against his Irish heritage. Con is an iconic representative of the human condition in conflict between soul delusion and soul truth.
What will Con’s self-hatred render and will he take down wife Nora and daughter Sara (the inimitable pairing of Kate Forbes and Belle Aykroyd), in his great, internal classicist struggle? Will Con finally acknowledge and accept the beauty and enjoyment of being an Irishman with freedom and hope? Or will he continue to move toward insanity, encased in the sarcophagus image of a proper English gentleman? This is the identity he bravely fashioned as Major Cornelius Melody to destroy any smatch of Irish in himself. O’Neill’s answers in this truly great production of Poet are unequivocal, yet intriguing.
The conflict manifests in the repercussions of the drinking Con takes on with relish. So as Cuccioli’s Con attempts to gain his composure and stiffly make it over to a table in the dining room of the shabby inn he owns, the morning after a night of carousing, we recognize that this is the wreck of a man physically, emotionally, psychically. His shaking frame soothed by drink, which wife Nora (Kate Forbes), brings to him in servile slavishness, is the only companion he wants, for in its necessity as the weapon of destruction, it hastens Con’s demise. The beloved drink stirs up his bluster and former stature of greatness that he has lost forever as a failed Englishman and even bigger failure as comfortable landed gentry in 1828 Yankee country near Boston.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly and the cast heighten our full attention toward Con’s conflict with the romantic ideal of himself and the present reality that will eventually drive him to a mental asylum or a hellish reconciliation with truth. All of the character interactions drive toward this apotheosis. The actors are tuned beautifully in their portrayals to magnify the vitality of this revelation.
Nora (Forbes is authentic and likeable), is the handmaiden to Con’s process of dissolution. In order to fulfill her own glorified self-reflection and identity in loving this once admirable gentleman, she coddles him. Riding on the coattails of her exalted image of Con, she maintains beauty in her self-love. She loves him in his past glory, for after all, he chose to be with her. So Nora must abide in his every word and deed to maintain her loyal happiness, taking whatever few, kind crumbs he leaves for her under the table of their marriage. As a result, she would never chide or browbeat Con to quit the poison that is killing him.
The good whiskey he proudly provides for himself and friends like Jamie Cregan (the excellent Andy Murray), to help maintain the proper stature of a gentleman, steadies his mind. The whiskey also makes him feel in control of his schizoid personas. He clearly is not in control and never will be, unless he undergoes an exorcism. The audience perversely finds O’Neill’s duality of characterizations in Con and the others amusing if not surprising.
Cuccoli’s Con at vital moments rejects the painfully failed present by peering into his mirrored reflection to quote Lord Byron in one or the other of two mirrors positioned strategically on the mantel piece and a wall. There, fueled by the alcohol, he re-imagines the glorious military man of the Dragoons as he stokes his pride. Yet, with each digression into the past, he torments his inner soul for reveling in his failed delusion.
Likewise, each insult he lashes against Nora, who guilty agrees with him for being a low Irish woman, both lifts him and harms him. It is the image of the Major ridiculing Nora because of the stink of onions in her hair one moment, and in self-recrimination, apologizing moments after for his abusiveness. In his behavior is his attempt to recall and capture his once courageous, successful British martial identity, while rejecting the Irish humanity and decency in the deep composition of his inner self.
Always that true self comes through as he recognizes his cruelty. He behaves similarly with Sara, bellicose in one breath, apologetic in the next, fearful of her accusatory glance. In this production Con’s struggle, Nora’s love throughout and Sara’s resistance and war with herself and her father is incredibly realized and prodigiously memorable. O’Reilly and the cast have such an understanding of the characters and the arc of their development, it electrified the audience the night I saw it. We didn’t know whether to laugh (the humor originated organically as the character struggles intensified), or cry for the tragedy of it. So we did both.
Con’s self-recrimination and self-hatred is apparent to Nora whose love is miraculously bestowed. His self-loathing is inconsequential to Sara, who torments him with an Irish brogue, lacerating him about his heritage and hers, which the “Major” despises, yet is his salvation, for it grounds him in decency. Sara and Nora are the bane of his existence and likewise they are his redemption. If only he could embrace his heritage which the “scum” friends who populate his bar would appreciate. If only he could destroy the ghost of the man he once was, Major Cornelius Melody, who had a valiant and philandering past, serving under the eventually exalted Duke of Wellington.
Through the discussions of Jamie Cregan with Mick Maloy (James Russell), we learn that the “Major identity” caused Con to be thrown out of the British military and forced him to avoid disgrace by settling in America with Nora and Sara. We see it causes his decline into alcoholism, destroys his resolve and purpose in life, and dissipates him mentally. It is the image of pretension that caused the bad judgment to be swindled by the Yankee liar who sold him the unproductive Inn. Sadly, that image is the force encouraging the insulting, emotional monster that abuses his wife and daughter. And it is a negative example for Sara who treats him as a blowhard, tyrant fool to vengefully ridicule and excoriate about his class chauvinism, preening airs and economic excesses (he keeps a mare to look grand while riding). It is the Major’s persona which brings them to the brink of poverty.
The turning point that pushes Con over the edge comes in the form of a woman he believes he can steal a kiss from, Deborah Hartford, the same woman whose intentions are against Sara and her son Simon Hartford falling in love. Without considering who this visiting woman might be, Con assumes the Major’s pretenses and we see first hand how Con “operates” with the ladies. His romanticism awkwardly emerges, left over from his philandering days with women who fell like dominoes under his charms. He is forward with Hartford who visits to survey the disaster her son Simon has befallen, under the spell of Sara’s charms, behavior not unlike Con’s. The scene is both comical and foreboding. From this point on, the events move with increasing risk to the climactic, fireworks of the ending.
As Deborah Hartford, Mary McCann pulls out all the stops in a performance which is grandly comical and real, with moment to moment specificity and detail. When Con attempts to thrust his kiss upon her, there were gasps from the audience because she is a prim Yankee woman of the upper classes who would find Con’s behavior low class and demeaning. That he “misses” the signs of who she is further proves his bad judgment. Sara is appalled and Nora, not jealous, makes excuses for him satisfying herself. The scene is beautifully handled by the actors with pauses and pacing to maximum effect.
McCann’s interaction with Aykroyd’s Sara is especially ironic. Deborah Hartford’s speech about the Hartford family male ideals of freedom and lazy liberty that forced the Hartford women to embrace their husbands’ notions by taking up the slave trade is hysterical. As she mildly ridicules Simon’s dreams to be a poet and write a book about freedom from oppressive, nullifying social values, she warns Sara against him. It is humorous that Sara doesn’t understand what she implies. Obviously, Deborah Hartford suspects Sara is a gold digger so she is laying tracks to run her own train over any match Sara and her son would attempt to make. After discovering the economically challenged, demeaned Melody family, Hartford informs her husband who sends in his man to settle with the Melodys.
Together McCann and Aykroyd provide the dynamic that sets up the disastrous events to follow. Clearly, Sara is more determined than ever to marry Simon and as the night progresses, she seals their love relationship with Nora’s blessing, until Nora understands that her daughter walks in her own footsteps in the same direction that she went with Con. Unlike Nora, however, Sara is not ashamed of her actions.
O’Neill’s superb play explores Con’s past and its arc to the present, revealing a dissipated character at the end of his rope. Wallowing in the Major’s ghostly image, Con vows to answer Mr. Hartford’s insult of sending Nicholas Gadsby (John C. Vennema looks and acts every inch the part), to buy off Sara’s love for Simon and prevent their marriage. After having his friends throw out the loudly protesting Gadsby, Con and Jamie Cregan go to the Hartfords to uphold the Major’s honor in a duel. Nora waits and fears for him and in a touching scene when Sara and Nora share their intimacies of love, Nora explains that her love brings her self-love and self-affirmation. Sara agrees with her mother over what she has found with Simon. The actors are marvelous in this intimate, revelatory scene.
The last fifteen minutes of the production represent acting highpoints by Cuccioli, Forbes, Aykroyd and Murray. When Con returns alive but beaten and vanquished, we acknowledge the Major’s identity smashed, as Con sardonically laughs at himself, a finality. With the Major’s death comes the hope of a renewal. Finally, Con shows an appreciation of his Irish heritage as he kisses Nora, a redemptive, affirming action.
O’Neill satisfies in this marvelous production. The playwright’s ironic twists and Con’s ultimate affirmation of the foundations of his soul is as uplifting as it is cathartic and beautiful. Nora’s love for Con has finally blossomed with the expiation of the Irishman. It is Sara who must adjust to this new reality to redefine her relationship with her father and reevaluate her expectation of their lives together. The road she has chosen, like her mother’s, is hard and treacherous with only her estimation of love to propel her onward.
From Con’s entrance to the conclusion of Irish Repertory Theatre’s shining revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, presented online during the pandemic and now live in its mesmerizing glory, we commit to these characters’ fall and rise. Ciarán O’Reilly has shepherded the sterling actors to inhabit the characters’ passion with breathtaking moment, made all the more compelling live with audience response and feeling. The production was superbly wrought on film in October of 2020. See my review https://caroleditosti.com/2020/10/30/a-touch-of-the-poet-the-irish-repertory-theatres-superb-revival-of-eugene-oneills-revelation-of-class-in-america/
Now, in its peak form, it is award worthy. Clearly, this O’Neill version is incomparable, and O’Reilly and the actors have exceeded expectations of this play which has been described as not one of O’Neill’s best. However, the production turns that description on its head. If you enjoy O’Neill and especially if you aren’t a fan of this most American and profound of playwrights, you must see the Irish Rep presentation. It is not only accessible, vibrant and engaging, it deftly explores the playwright’s acute themes and conflicts. Indeed, in Poet we see that 1)classism creates personal trauma; 2)disassociation from one’s true identity fosters the incapacity to maintain economic well being. And in one of the themes O’Neill revisits in his all of his works, we recognize the inner soul struggles that manifest in self-recrimination which must be confronted and resolved.
Kudos to the creative team for their superb efforts: Charlie Corcoran (scenic design), Alejo Vietti & Gail Baldoni (costume design), Michael Gottlieb (lighting design), M. Florian Staab (sound design), Ryan Rumery (original music), Brandy Hoang Collier (properties), Robert-Charles Vallance (hair & wig design).
For tickets and times to the Irish Repertory Company’s A Touch of the Poet, go to their website: https://irishrep.org/show/2021-2022-season/a-touch-of-the-poet-3/
Kevin Barry’s dark comedy Autumn Royal, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage is a blend of dark and light humor centered around a poignant family dynamic: what do we do with cantankerous, ailing Pa when Ma left the family? Directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly, the production builds with gradual LOL riot to an ironic conclusion that is also a tragic reflection of human nature now and for all time.,
Barry, an award-winning novelist (most recently Night Boat to Tangier) and short story writer (most recent, That Old Country Music), launched out to write his first play, Autumn Royal. When they heard the news, artistic director Charlotte Moore and director Ciarǻn O’Reilly snapped it up for the live 2021 season after triumphantly producing superb digital productions seen globally during the pandemic.
Starring the comic actor and writer Maeve Higgins as May and company member of the Irish Rep John Keating as her sibling Timothy, the actors show their talents as they conduct the audience on a romp which is both surreal and symbolic. The characters’ journey takes them into past events whose revelations inform their present predicament. As the arc of their situation intensifies because of their emotional angst, we are engaged with the surprising and humorous dialogue and flashbacks as family mysteries that haunt the siblings become exposed. The revelations impact how they determine their way forward as they live with and take care of their father 24/7, while he languishes in his sick bed.
We discover by degrees the conflicts amongst family members, May and Timothy and their parents. Through their commentary and banter with each other, the fine actors reveal reveal the puzzle pieces of their characters’ history. Rapt, we cobble together the threads to divine how and why they continue to live in Cork, Ireland with their father in his house as they care for his most intimate, personal needs. Their father and mother we understand by inference, description and reaction via amazingly suggestive flashbacks rendered with precision by Higgins and Keating. The flashbacks are theatrically presented with the sounds of machinery and projections on the dreary walls of a downstairs room, courtesy of Charlie Corcoran’s set design, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s original music and sound design, Dan Scully’s projection design and Hidenori Nakajo’s sound design.
All elements of spectacle are expertly woven by the creative team to the maximum creating a frightening effect. The theme of parental impact on their children’s emotions and psyche is driven home, but in a unique and stark way as May and Timothy struggle to expurgate or suppress the parental damage that changed the course of their lives.
The images and sounds combine to represent the siblings’ imaginations and personal memories. The revelations are of their unique character; other individuals would flashback to events in a different way. These are Barry’s superior characterizations, so beautifully understood and effected with O’Reilly’s direction and Higgins’ and Keatings’ sensitivity. May’s and Timothy’s stories connect past and present. Their humor, a way to deal with the terrors of parental verbal abuse, arises from misery and torment.
From the dramatically imagistic connections we understand clearly how and why they approach their lives, each other, their parents, their dreams and the possibilities of their future portentous decisions. Interestingly, Barry never presents the mother and father onstage. They are like living ghosts, shadows of their former selves, once a lighthearted family of four before the darkness came.
As the ghostly unseen, the father rains dust down on May and Timothy in the room on the first floor as he bangs out tempestuous ructions in his upstairs bed. The mother, a dark figure wandering up the hill above their house never visits, though she lives somewhere in Cork and remains incommunicado by her own design. However, she once visits her husband in his sickbed and compliments Timothy when she comes downstairs again. Timothy reports this to May after she confronts him about their parents. It is then we learn how May despises their mother, as they note their father’s religious fanaticism.
There is no spoiler alert. The events progress as the siblings try to make cogent decisions about their father’s condition and theirs with humorous effect. To what extent do they determine to fail? To what extent do they interact with each other in combined stasis and nihilism to deliver a result they don’t want? Or do they want it? You will just have to see this superb production to experience the humor, the poignancy and the uncertainty inherent in Barry’s work, prodigiously staged and shepherded by O’Reilly’s direction and Higgins’ and Keating’s wonderful performances.
Barry’s work intrigues with its complexities. The actors make the characters authentic in their hellish prison which they impose on themselves and each other. Gradually, they back themselves in a convenient corner. Their past, ironically suggested with symbolic flashbacks indicating a machinery which catches them up and spins them in circles of torment they cannot break, speaks to all of us. How caught up are we in past hurts delivered by individuals who have long since died? How much do we allow past events to determine how we relate to individuals in the present, who have vastly changed when the circumstances are also different? Or have the relationships we’ve developed over time worsened in revenge, self-punishment and unforgiveness? To what extent do we keep the machinery spinning because we don’t know how to stop it or won’t stop it?
The creative team, the director and the actors have brought to life the tragicomedy of a family in Barry’s powerful play. The production values enhance the themes and bring them home. As we laugh, the impact of May’s and Timothy’s reality drives into our hearts. This is a wonderful production to begin Irish Repertory’s return to live theater. Kudos to all involved. For tickets and times visit their website https://irishrep.org/
Theatermania has referred to the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “Leader of Streaming Theater,” during the pandemic. Its shows have been top notch during the unprecedented New York City theater shutdown. Ghosting written by Jamie Beamsh and Anne O’Riordan, performed by Anne O’Riordan is an intriguing and thoughtful provoking offering. Recorded live at Theatre Royal Waterford in Ireland, that theater, Thrown Shapes and the Irish Repertory Theatre collaborated to stream the presentation which concludes in a few days. (4th July)
Anne O’Riordan’s performance is nuanced, personal and superb. She personifies the voice and demeanor of various characters with the exception of one, for a symbolic reason. Sheila, nicknamed “She” for short, left Waterford for London and has been there for six years. We gradually discover the reason why, though she initially misleads us and we think it is because her former boyfriend who took her virginity then “ghosted” her. In the vernacular, ghosting means an individual cuts off all communication and ends a relationship without explaining why, without going through miserable late night begging sessions to “stay together.” In other words, he cut her off and never spoke to her again.
From her position at work, we note she is irascible and unapproachable. She doesn’t have any friends, nor does she have any hobbies or interests that she discusses. She essentially complains about her co-worker who clearly cares about her and with whom she might establish a relationship. She is uninterested and aloof. We consider is it him or her. As Sheila confides in us she slips information discussing that she can’t sleep at night. Perhaps, her irate attitude is because she hasn’t been home to Ireland in six years. Perhaps it is because she has not kept up with family after her mother died. Thus, we determine she grieves. Some people never end their grieving for a parent. No communication is easier than tears and longing for who will never retrun.
The turning point comes when she can’t sleep one night and someone shows up at the foot of her bed. Is this a dream? Is this reality? Is she hallucinating because she has gone insane? We follow along for the ride not wanting to believe that Sheila is psycho, though in some circles, she immediately would be given medication and confront her obviously deep-seated issues with group or individual psychotherapy. But this is different. Sheila is rational; her story, thus far, is logical and we accept that her former boyfriend at the foot of her bed is a ghost or has emerged out of her dream to stop ghosting her by ghosting her. The irony is humorous.
From there the twists and turns gyrate and we whirl along in Sheila’s adventure as she maneuvers a journey back to Ireland. What happens there becomes an examination of her admission that she has been the one ghosting. She’s ghosted her father, her family and friends there. Most importantly, she’s ghosted herself. She realizes she’s been living a non-living reality, not existing so that she deferred grappling with herself, her destiny and future. Does she make plans and enjoy the moments and breaths of her life? No. She has been a shadow person, beyond a state of hibernation. And the only way that she comes out of it is through someone else’s sacrifice and a supernatural visitation, an earthquake that shakes her unto herself to show her what she’s been doing.
When Sheila returns to Waterford, her hometown, she’s drawn home for an urgent reason (to her) via a text her sister sends her. She meets her sister in a bar but she vows not to see her father. Startling and embarrassing, emotional events occur. The miraculous visitations continue until she is brought to a reconciliation with herself and her family after she returns to her home in London.
Beamish and O’Riordan’s writing has elements of the philosophical poetical. The direction of the visitation scenes is spot on. The scenes are powerful and remain atmospheric and suspenseful as we wonder, like the character of Sheila, where we are being taken. Importantly, the issues of why Sheila left Waterford, why Mark, her boyfriend ghosted her are eventually answered, though other mysteries are opquae.
The beauty of this work is the meld of the supernatural with reality; the sacred and the profane delivered through the lighting effects, projections and sound design (Beamish effected most of it with Dermot Quinn taking care of the lighting design). Vitally, it is O’Riordan’s authentic and finely hued performance which makes us believe and go along with her on this wild, exceptional journey. We remain curious and engaged with her as she touches the shadows of another consciousness which is hers, her boyfriend’s her father’s. Importantly, we are astounded at the human capacity for love despite misery and unredeemed emotional pain, and the ability to want to heal, even if it means stirring spirits from the other side to help us.,
Ghosting reminds us with paramount intention that our actions have dualistic purposes that we may not understand, initially. But if we hang on long enough, the answers come and we can confront ourselves, evaluate and be gentle to our sensitive inner being which needs care. Sheila, by the conclusion of Ghosting resolves the emotional pain, though it will always be with her. However, the miraculous helps her look at it and stop ghosting herself, by making herself more present to accept actions which she once loathed about herself.
This is one you shouldn’t miss for O’Riordan’s performance which is memorable, for the production values and for the direction. Jamie Beamish directed the livestream. Aidan Kelly directed the original stage production. Ghosting streams until Sunday, 4 July unless they extend it. In order to make reservations go to Irish Repertory Theatre.
Check out the production and the 2021 seasonal offerings coming up. Theater in NYC is going live full blast in September. The Irish Repertory will be a part of that celebration. However, it’s appeal has now become global and most probably they will continue to stream performances during their season so if you are in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Ireland, you won’t miss out. Donations are always welcome . CLICK HERE for details in the pull down menu.
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 creative 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.