Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Playboy of the Western World" till 21 November and "The Well of the Saints"**** till 20 November

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi

Having seen both the Abbey and Súgán productions, I must say the Súgán does the more convincing job.

"THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD"

by John Millington Synge
directed by Ben Barnes

Bellman … Simon O’Gorman
Pegeen Mike … Cathy Belton
Shawn Keogh … Andrew Bennett
Michael James … John Olohan
Jimmy Farrell … David Herlihy
Philly Cullen … Brendan Conroy
Christy Mahon … Tom Vaughan Lawlor
Widow Quin … Olwen Fouéré
Susan Brady … Ciara O’Callaghan
Honor Blake … Katy Davis
Sara Tansey … Kelly Campbell
Old Mahon … Maeliosa Stafford

"THE WELL OF THE SAINTS"

by John Millington Synge
directed by Carmel O’Reilly

Martin Doul … Billy Meleady
Mary Doul … Beth Gotha
Timmy … Derry Woodhouse
Molly Byrne … Therese Plaehn
Bride … Caryn Andrea Lindsey
The Saint … Michael Dell’Orto
Matt Smon … Nate Connors
Girl … Kate Reilly
Patch Ruadh … Timothy P. Hoover

Chances are I could write a reasonable facsimile of an Irish play based on my reading or attending a number of them: my wild, haunted countryside would be peopled with twinkling alcoholics, a guilt-ridden priest harboring a terrible secret, a pair of raggedy wanderers, a tough old crone prone to laying curses and a colleen repeatedly told she is beautiful when angry. Comedy and Tragedy would stroll through the evening like Siamese twins: there would be foaming glasses to loosen tongues and dig up grievances and grotesque characterizations punctuated with sudden shafts of lyricism; the prop list would include shillelaghs for brandishing and occasionally whacking, a crucifix (later used as a corkscrew) and, depending on my mood, a coffin washing in from another county’s flood. The plot needn’t amount to much --- a goat could be stolen and re-stolen, again --- as long as there is plenty of blarney to back it all up. The closing line: “It’s true I ain’t ye father, Pat, but buy me another, anyway.” Stereotypes die hard in Irish plays and now that they are being recharged via today’s strife or feminism, the Old Woman may continue to display her warts onstage with such horror-comedies as Martin McDonagh’s THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE where an unbalanced woman abuses and murders her old bitch of a mother while the uncommunicative father and son in Brian Friel’s tender, rueful PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME! may not seem “Irish” enough. Some would argue that Mr. Friel has the truer voice but Mr. McDonagh the stronger heartbeat; to quote from two on-line readers regarding Mr. McDonagh’s play: “It has to be remembered that [Mr. McDonagh] grew up in London, because nobody who grew up in Ireland would write quite this way. In fact, plenty of people in Ireland “do” be talking this way (it's the continuous present tense, used in some rural areas and amongst the urban working class) - they just don't do it quite as intensely, and as often, as he makes out. I believe it's called Creative Exaggeration. As a young Irish playwright, I'm dead jealous, and I would like to make a law against people calling him the best, funniest, whateverest young playwright in Ireland, because nobody's seen the rest of our work yet….” “[BEAUTY QUEEN] reads like Psycho meets Darby O'Gill. No one in Ireland talks like the people in this play "do be talking". Utterly offensive nonsense.” I’m struck by the phrase “nobody’s seen the rest of our work yet”: is there such a thing as an Irish sophisticated comedy-romance in an urban setting complete with a happy ending? If there is, I’ve yet to see or read it; American audiences get to see only what producers want to show them, and producers, like everyone else, have to eat but if you can imagine Neil Simon or David Mamet being the only American playwrights representing America overseas, you would have to admit that the scales would be, well, unbalanced.

To attend the current Boston productions of John Millington Synge’s THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, courtesy of Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, and THE WELL OF SAINTS at the Súgán Theatre is to return to a major source of how the Irish got themselves locked in the popular imagination. Mr. Synge (1871-1909), an Anglo-Irishman, lived and wrote during the flowering of the Irish literary renaissance led by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, who persuaded Mr. Synge to visit the Aran Islands for creative inspiration. Mr. Synge fell in love with the simple, hardworking people and their harsh land and his fame rests on a handful of plays about Irish peasant life and his journal, THE ARAN ISLANDS. In 1904, the Messrs. Synge and Yeats and Lady Gregory organized the Abbey Theatre and produced THE WELL OF THE SAINTS (1905) and THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD (1907), the latter play causing riots among Irish patriots for its frank dialogue and stark contrast to Mr. Yeats and Lady Gregory’s Gaelic mysticism. The quotes above regarding Mr. McDonagh find an amazing parallel in quotes from two of Mr. Synge’s contemporaries in a BBC interview broadcast in 1952:

OLIVER ST. JOHN GOGARTY: This language I have never heard in the mouth of any countryman in Ireland. It is an ersatz, which has been credited with much simplicity and beauty, but which always offended me by its artificiality.

versus

GEORGE ROBERTS: Synge has been sometimes accused by his detractors of never having heard many of the speeches they objected to, but anyone who has come into contact with the country people and spoken to them on terms of comradeship knows how their imagination flares into great extravagance of speech. For instance a friend of mine overheard a woman whose child had stolen a piece of sugar cry out at him, ‘May the hammers of damnation beat out the soul of you on the anvil of hell.’ I told that to Synge and he was delighted.

When it comes to art, does an outsider have more insights based on detachment and observation than a native who lives in the thick of it? Mr. Synge’s intentions were good --- an ennobling of the “little people” --- and the results were original, influential work but he remained an outsider in the Aran community and his characters, vaudeville turns compared to the stoic people captured in Robert Flaherty’s classic documentary MAN OF ARAN. How fascinating to encounter THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD and THE WELL OF THE SAINTS nowadays in light of all the “Irish”-ness that they helped to spawn --- today’s icons were yesterday’s realism (even Mr. Beckett, for all his profoundness, makes more sense when seen as a crab apple from Mr. Synge’s tree): in THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, a young stranger named Christy (symbolism, noted) turns a village’s collective head with his boasts about killing his own father, becoming a temporary figure of romance with two women, Pegeen Mike (the colleen) and the Widow Quin (the crone) competing for his favors; in THE WELL OF THE SAINTS, Martin and Mary Doul, an old blind couple, are temporarily granted sight only to have their illusions about each other smashed on the rock of reality --- in the end, they choose blindness in order to remain together. ‘Tis kinder to label Mr. Synge’s artistry as ‘theatrical’ rather than ‘ersatz’: the more “Irish” the playing, the better the production --- having seen both the Abbey and Súgán productions, I must say the Súgán does the more convincing job.

The Abbey’s PLAYBOY begins with a hushed sort of thrill --- here are Irish actors, from an internationally acclaimed theatre celebrating its centennial; surely, they, of all companies, would deliver a memorable PLAYBOY --- but a different sort of familiarity soon creeps in: instead of something rich and yeasty, hewn from the earth, the Abbey dishes out the kind of fare that can be found at the American Repertory Theatre where directors and scene designers rule the roost. Director Ben Barnes has inserted a motley-clad Bellman to solemnly declaim and to set up scenes, punctuated by cymbal crashes --- the solemn arrival of a washbasin being particularly risible (imagine a production of OKLAHOMA! beginning with a Richard Rodgers look-alike handing Aunt Eller her butter churn) --- and Mr. Barnes casts a sinister chill over Act Two where Christy’s downfall begins but happily does not end as a ritualized lynching performed in silhouette and Pegeen Mike is seemingly punished for her abandoning Christy (symbolism, noted) by being left to grovel in a spotlight, punctuated by one final cymbal crash --- and this is meant to be a comedy! Tom Vaughan Lawlor adds to the darkness with a saturnine Christy who looks and acts very much the psychopath rather than a sheep-eyed lad made bold with his lies; the way Mr. Lawlor gargles gravel may leave him with no voice at all by the time the company returns home. Cathy Belton makes a handsome, conventional Pegeen Mike and Olwen Fouéré is a magnificent Widow Quin, her deep, tolling voice issuing from the most poker-faced of masks. There are some nice detailed touches --- a rusty basin, a cracked mirror, a nasty-looking head wound, the way that Christy never looks completely scrubbed --- but, overall, I was disappointed with the Abbey’s offering; the connecting tissue between it and the 1904 production, non-existent.

The Súgán production of THE WELL OF THE SAINTS, too, has its flaws --- the accents among the supporting players come and go and, as directed by Carmel O’Reilly, the villagers are far too affectionate in their tormenting Martin Doul (their words and actions reveal them to be a mean-spirited lot; that gentle actor Derry Woodhouse is particularly miscast as a brusque blacksmith) --- but this humble little evening has a rough, honest texture to it that the Abbey Theatre failed to apply to its own, and it is crowned by Billy Meleady and Beth Gotha as the Beckett-like Douls. Mr. Meleady, the Súgán’s most valuable property, carefully orchestrates Martin’s gnarled tenderness and bottomless rage where others would have soon turned into howling caricatures, thus his Martin can bluster all he likes and still retain a human dimension. If Mr. Meleady can be compared to a mangy beagle, Ms. Gotha is a badger dragged from its hibernation, narrow-minded and formidable. Her Mary is not at all ugly as written, though some of her fierce expressions would keep you well at arm’s length. The Abbey company, for all its nationality, belts to the rafters yet is neutral in impact; Mr. Meleady and Ms. Gotha pick and choose from their palettes and create two unforgettable portraits which may or may not be viewed as Irish but are “Irish”, enough.

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

"The Playboy of the Western World" (2-21 November)
THE ABBEY THEATRE OF IRELAND
The Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street, BOSTON. MA
1 (617) 931-2787

"The Well of the Saints" (29 October-20 November)
THE SÚGÁN THEATRE COMPANY
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

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