Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Translations"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Brian Friel
directed by Dani Duggan

Manus … Mike Manship
Sarah … Colleen Rua
Jimmy Jack … Brian Quint
Maire … Rose Carlson
Doalty … John Dupuis
Bridget … Joyeux Noel
Hugh … Gerald Slattery
Owen … Dan Cozzens
Capt. Lancey … Kevin Groppe
Lt. Yolland … Rob O’Dwyer

I confess that the only other play I know by Brian Friel is his PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME! which first brought him acclaim in America; I saw a college production of this rueful Irish comedy when I was a teenager (the actors, only a decade older, seemed so far away in age and technique; now I’m twice the age they were, then); I cannot recall the production save for its wall clock having its hours adjusted for each scene but I do remember the play’s warm, decent tone as the tongue-tied son leaving for America made one last attempt to commune with his equally tongue-tied father but could not. Decades later, the problems of communication are also at the heart of Mr. Friel’s richer, deeper TRANSLATIONS, now in a sturdy little production at the Devanaugh Theatre --- catch the play, and this production, while you can.

Set in the village of Baile Beag/Ballybeg in 1833, TRANSLATIONS shows the passing of Gaelic life through words, written and spoken. Schoolmaster Hugh O’Donnell and his lame son Manus, in accordance with British law, teach classics and mathematics to their friends and neighbors who speak only in the mother tongue; Ovid and Homer may be viewed as a diversion, at first, or a means to better oneself but the enlightenment takes an ominous turn when Hugh’s other son, the anglicized Owen (aka “Roland”) comes home with two British officers, Capt. Lancey and Lt. Yolland; with Owen acting as translator, their orders are to map out the landscape for military intelligence and convert the Gaelic placenames to the King’s English. Lancey treats the villagers with smiling contempt (he insists on being addressed in English) but Yolland becomes entranced with the beauty and romance of the land encapsulated by the colleen Maire, Manus’ beloved; Maire, in turn, becomes enchanted with Yolland’s clipped elegance and wants to run away with him even though neither quite speaks the other’s language. Mr. Friel’s history lesson slowly stacks its dominoes but ends in reverie rather than in action (as with Chekhov, all of the big moments occur offstage); still, TRANSLATIONS is celebratory in its human comedy and heartbreaking in its cultural and personal tragedies.

There will come a time when the growing excellence of community theatre in and around the Boston area will be given its due; when that time comes, the historic Piano Factory may prove to be a major focal point smack-dab in Beantown (its brick-lined funkiness is akin to many an off-off-Broadway space in Manhattan). The Devanaugh Theatre and other companies have been turning out satisfying bread-and-butter shows there for some time, consumed by adventurous, modest-sized audiences; its production of TRANSLATIONS is an impressive start to its 2004-2005 season. It is still half-baked, in spots --- the wavering accents can be overlooked but director Dani Duggan needs to shade in Mr. Friel’s emotional landscape (i.e. the British are the hated conquerors); as it stands, much of Act One is slack and only begins to knit together when Owen and the officers appear but as Ms. Duggan’s ensemble ignites one by one, the production catches fire and beautifully illuminates what TRANSLATIONS is all about --- if the villagers come off as Nature’s children in Act One, by Act Three they have the proper looks and stances, defiant or cowed, towards their foe. To Ms. Duggan’s credit, her tableaus rise and fall wonderfully well and her crackerjack cast has no serious weaknesses in its chain; Time will thicken, not strengthen, them.

John Dupuis, Joyeux Noel, Brian Quint and John Slattery are adept at dishing out the blarney; blessedly, Ms. Duggan has orchestrated them so their merriment remains spontaneous but does not swamp the quiet achievements of Mike Manship as the downtrodden Manus and Dan Cozzens who subtly conveys Owen’s growing turmoil as he finds himself becoming a double-Judas. Kevin Groppe and Rob O’Dwyer reap the lion’s share of laughter with Mr. Groppe as the silly-ass Lancey who later morphs into a ruthless disciplinarian; as Yolland, Mr. O’Dwyer comes perilously close to “Anyone for tennis?” but he and Rose Carlson as Maire share one of the most beautifully written love scenes in modern theatre despite the language barrier; it rivals the Henry-Katherine courtship in HENRY V but is far more accessible as Mr. Friel, in a theatrical lie, has all of his characters speak English throughout for the audience’s sake. Ms. Carlson may not convince me her modern-day Maire has calluses on her hands but Colleen Rua is indelible as Sarah, tongue-tied into muteness, her pudding-plain mask a study in silent eloquence without turning coy or maudlin --- the play begins with Sarah bleating her first words in English; with those few syllables, something is gained (knowledge) and something is lost (a bit of a country’s heritage).

The Piano Factory’s interior adapts itself, once again --- the last time I was there, it was an attic apartment filled with antiques; before that, a dance studio/live-in loft. Here it convinces as a barn converted into a elementary schoolhouse, with the emphasis on “elementary” --- I know of no other theatre in Boston that continues to act alongside whatever artists are contained in its embrace.


"Translations" (23 September-20 October)
The Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 247-9777

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