Tag Archives: Irish theatre

Once, the musical

When you enter New York Theatre Workshop’s space on E. 4th St. to see Once, the musical adaptation of the 2007 Irish indie film (see my 2007 blog post on the film), the well-worn theatre suddenly feels like a party hall.  The stage has been transformed into a bar, replete with distressed old mirrors and sconce lights, and a low counter that serves double-duty as a place for spectators to get a pint before the play proper starts and as a secondary acting platform for the considerable talents of this musically distinguished and emotionally empathetic cast.

In Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s faithful adaptation, the Dublin community on which the story focuses is bound by its music making.  The cast is small by musical theatre standards, since the “community here,” usually represented by dozens of supernumeraries, is the close-knit one of Dublin street buskers and musicians who remain soulfully devoted to music as an expression of their pining spirits.

Steve Kazee plays “the guy,” a recently jilted, emotionally and artistically ambivalent singer/song-writer who at the show’s beginning, after a wrenching solo, has decided to abandon his battered guitar on the street as a kind of remnant of his own lost soul.

But “the girl” (like “the guy,” also nameless, an odd conceit borrowed from the film) overhears his ballad and brings him emphatically back to his music and to his life.  Played by the lovely, energetic Cristin Milioti (last seen at NYTW in Ivo Van Hove’sLittle Foxes), she drags him to a music store where she borrows a piano on which to accompany him in her resonant, equally soulful style.  Through sheer will and a bit of artfully withheld romance, she encourages him to resume his music-making in America, where he can reconnect with his departed girlfriend and have a wonderful life.

As in the film, music expresses the duo’s personalities and their yearnings.  The musical’s loveliest and most haunting number remains the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the original guy and girl who remain credited for the music and lyrics of this adaptation.  The ballad grows as a duet between the two, whose voices blend perfectly as their separate instruments play a kind of syncopated, already sad flirtation.

Although the pair fall in love as soon as they begin harmonizing together, the musical keeps them apart rather than uniting this typically central heterosexual couple as more conventional musical stories are wont to do.  In fact, one of the pleasures ofOnce is watching it resist the stereotypical formula.  The community that typically mirrors the central couple’s initial opposition—like the cowboys and the farmers who should be friends in Oklahoma—here are already united.

Walsh manufactures some humorous initial conflict between Billy (Paul Whitty), the music store owner, and the bank manager (Andy Taylor) to whom the girl and guy turn for a loan to make their album.  When the banker turns out to be a closeted musician (and a not-so-closeted gay man), he gives the couple the money and joins the band, overcoming Billy’s suspicion of capitalists to become part of the singing and playing ensemble.

In fact, that band of sympathetic brothers and sisters is one of the sweetest things about this very sweet show.  Director John Tiffany (Black Watch) keeps his instrument-playing and singing cast on stage throughout Once, John Doyle-style.  He guides them toward saloon-style chairs that line the wide proscenium stage in between numbers.  From there, they watch the action intently and provide the occasional musical punctuation or undertone.

The several acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a banjo, an accordion, a ukulele, a bass, and two violins, as well as a drum set employed in the climactic studio recording scene, compose the orchestra, all played by members of the cast.  The mournful ballads underscore the fated love story, and the musicians provide pre-show and intermission Irish pub music to persuade the audience into the Dublin world of Once.

And the audience loves it.  They approach the bar on stage willingly before the show and during the intermission, where cast and crew pull pints of Guinness and other beers.  Several spectators the night I attended danced with the musicians who sang together center stage, stomping their feet Riverdance-style and making that particularly Irish sort of merry before the central story got underway.

The pre-show party is a fun theatrical choice, shaking up, as it does, the conventional separation between performer and spectator.  The choice to create a pub-style environment that lets the show be small and intimate, signals from the start that Onceis not aspiring to more typical musical spectacle that would mock the more personal commitments at the film’s heart.

The guy lives with his father (David Patrick Kelly), a crusty old Dubliner named “Da,” above the vacuum repair shop they run together.  When the girl finds the guy losing heart on the street, she asks him to fix her Hoover, insisting that he make the machine “suck.”  Because she’s Czech—and Walsh gets a fair amount of mileage from her Eastern European seriousness—she soberly sets about the task of re-inspiring the guy toward his own talents.

He’s grudging at first, floundering on the shoals of lost love and confusion about his own ambitions.  But she’s insistent.  In the first act, in fact, she’s a bit too single-minded in her intention to repair his heart, and appears the stereotypical girl in the service of a guy’s future rather than her own.

But Walsh gives the character more nuances in the second act.  She has a child and a husband who’s on his way back to Dublin from a trial separation.  And although she’s drawn to the guy, she has a stalwart ethic that requires her to try to make her marriage work.  That the guy and the girl clearly love one another but don’t become lovers is a refreshing tactic for a musical.  Their attraction shimmers around the show, and their sad but somehow right failure to consummate their love makes Once wistful and somehow true about those complicated affairs of the heart.

Bob Crowley’s evocative set and costumes are lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, who gilds the actors with the kind of romantic, introspective warmth that seems to deepen their emotional complexity.  Many of the show’s scenes take place in squares of light that mark off the space, carving it into intimate encounters between pairs of characters–the guy and his father; the guy and the girl; Billy and his date.  Once, as a result, is an intimate, surprisingly quiet affair, in which between the numbers, the characters spend time simply talking to one another about their desires, hopes, and dreams.

The Czech background of the girl and her extended family—her mother, daughter, and cousins figure heavily into her Dublin life—is played for laughs.  The cousins, of all the musical’s characters, are cardboard stereotypes meant to elicit the national confusions and language humor that comes from immigrants navigating new worlds.

Walsh and Tiffany handle the film’s international flair with supertitles which, in a creative twist, project the English dialogue into the characters’ native tongues.  That is, the audience sees the girl’s exchanges with her family projected in Czech, and some of the Dubliner’s dialogue projected in Irish.  The actors speak in English with various degrees of Eastern European and Irish accents, none of which are pronounced enough to get in the way of comprehension.

The show’s choreography is light and unobtrusive, but occasionally inspired, as when the girl and the guy, in separate images, seem to sculpt the air with their arms, providing circles of warmth and intimacy into which one of the other performers walks.  For instance, the girl, downstage center, curves her arm out in front of her, and one of the other women moves into her embrace, leaning her back into the girl’s chest and circling her arm around her waist so that the girl can lay her chin on the other woman’s shoulder.

In another light but poignant dance moment, when the girl listens to the guy’s music on a pair of large headphones, the two other young women in the cast (both of whom play the violin) mirror her as she moves about the stage, their hands outstretched into the air with the exhilaration of listening to sounds you love.

Once is a charming production, currently selling out at NYTW and poised to move to Broadway in February.  The show’s investors premiered the production at Diana Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge before the move to NYTW; they apparently have always planned on a Broadway run.

When the show moves to the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, I only hope it finds a way to retain the intimacy of its appeal for a larger audience.  It would be a shame to sacrifice the pub-like atmosphere of the theatre, and the quiet simplicity of the acting and the singing, or to make the show wholly bigger for a Broadway crowd.

The appeal of Once comes from the appropriate scale of its ambitions—to tell a story through lovely ballads, sung from broken, yearning young hearts.

The Feminist Spectator

Once, New York Theatre Workshop, December 16, 2011.

Link to original post on Blogspot. 

Request Programme at the Galway Arts Festival, Ireland

The Galway Arts Festival opened last Monday, July 11, promising an impressive range of Irish and global theatre and performance opportunities through July 24. My own consumption of the daily events and productions began with a site-specific production of Franz Xavier Kroetz’s Request Programme. First produced in Stuttgart in 1973, the play is a silent meditation/lamentation, a slice of life at the end of a day in one ordinary woman’s life.

I saw the play (then called Request Concert) produced in New York in the early 1980s, with a stunning performance by Joan Mackintosh. That production, however, was played on a proscenium stage, into which the audience peered like voyeurs as this unnamed, unknown woman performed the mundane actions of her typical evening. She returned from work; settled in; washed her face; cooked her meal; and prepared for bed.

We know nothing about her or her circumstances. The slow unraveling of her control over her emotions and her final cataclysmic action comes without an explanatory backstory. The play’s silence—there is no dialogue—keeps the woman’s interior life remote and mysterious. The intimacy of her quotidian activities makes spectators question what it means to watch the progress of someone else’s life.

In a site-specific production like this one, skillfully mounted by Corcadorca Theatre Company’s founder and artistic director Pat Kiernan in an elegant Galway apartment just off of the central Eyre Square, the audience’s voyeurism is both invited and heightened. Ushered to the two-bedroom, two-bath residence 15 minutes prior to the performance’s official start time, we were given a sheet of instructions that encouraged us to roam through the apartment and look at things at our leisure. Nothing was off-limits—we could open drawers, cabinets, the refrigerator, and examine books and personal effects at will.

Watching fellow spectators navigate this invitation indicated how comfortable we all are with interpersonal boundaries. Some folks the evening I attended opened dresser drawers and closets and sifted through toiletries; others stood in the center of the living room, peering about but forgoing the invitation to touch. We were told that keeping silent was the one unbreakable rule, and that the actor/character (the superb Eileen Walsh) would not acknowledge our presence.

Request Programme requires diligent investigation and observation to put together the narrative cues that pepper the scene and the woman’s actions. Who she is, what she cares about, where she’s been, and where’s she’s going is ambiguous. Looking at her bookcases ahead of time, for instance, I noted a number of contemporary novels written by women and a few “self-help” titles. On her bedside table lay David Nicholl’s recent novel One Day, with a bookmark half-way through. Beside it, the most recent Vanity Fair was open to a story called “Betting the Farm,” which addresses property rights in the Hamptons, in the States.

But the article’s title and the subject of Nicholl’s book offer clues, of a sort, to where this woman might be headed. One Day details the same date over twenty years in the lives of two characters whose relationship is stormy, vexed, passionate, and ultimately, tragically, failed. And although the woman in Request Programme might have nothing to do with the Hampton’s proper, to “bet the farm” colloquially means to risk everything you have on one thing. (To “buy the farm,” on the other hand, means to die.)

Whether or not you read these clues (and whether or not they really are clues), closely observing the woman’s behavior hints at her increasing despair and desperation. When she arrives, her keys engage the lock and we hear her heels clicking into the narrow front hallway. She’s wearing a white and beige linen suit, and a lanyard around her neck from which a corporate identification tag hangs. She comes into the living room/kitchen to start her tea boiling, then moves into her bedroom, where most of the audience follows, watching her change into casual linen pants and a pilled grey wool sweater to begin her evening rituals.

The first half of the performance details her close control over her environment. Before she changes out of her work clothes, she opens the apartment’s windows, pausing for a moment to stare out pensively. She finds a dead fly on a window sill, and takes a relatively large amount of time to pick up its carcass with a tissue; throw it in the garbage, her nose wrinkled with distaste; and spray the sill with disinfectant, furiously wiping it down after.

This obsessive cleanliness continues throughout her routine. She washes her dishes three or four times over the course of the performance, then spraying the sink with cleaning solution and rigorously wiping it out. But each time she does so is a bit different. By the last time, she’s not quite as precise or careful.

Likewise, when she sets the table for her dinner, she carefully lines up every kitchen implement she’ll need to cut her paté and organize her bottled red peppers, which she arranges on her plate like a still life—garnished with parsley from a pot above her range—that she proceeds to eat methodically, careful not to soil the picture with crumbs.

Later, she pours herself a second cup of tea and eats from a packet of digestive biscuits, flicking them out of the cellophane one at a time, dunking the cookie into her tea, and putting the whole thing hastily in her mouth to avoid getting crumbs on the quilting project she’s chosen for her night’s activity.

Watching the woman’s compulsive behavior gradually and subtly fall apart over the course of the 75 minute performance points to how her evening (and ours) eventually ends. Her demeanor, too, begins to crack. Early on, she peers into a mirror in the living room, running a finger over a spot on her face and applying some sort of salve, clearly unhappy and preoccupied with this evidence of imperfection on her person.

When she uses the toilet (in full view of the roaming spectators, twice), she winces. I happened to notice a box of tablets to treat cystitis in one of her kitchen cabinets on my own rifling through her personal effects before the performance. This, along with her pain and the glass of diluted cranberry juice she drinks at one point in the performance, indicates an ordinary and annoying urinary tract infection. But because nothing is told to the spectators, you’re required to assemble the evidence and come to your own conclusions.

Request Programme happens in real time. She turns on the television after she changes her clothes, and watches a Sky News story about Rupert Murdoch’s media corporation’s phone-hacking scandal in the UK. Clearly, the television broadcast is “real.” Later, as she’s sewing a piece onto a quilt she intends to use to cover her coffee table, she listens to the radio, accessed as part of a combo CD/FM player on her bookcase.

The songs that we heard played that night seemed so thematically relevant to her situation—or at least its emotional valence—that the radio broadcast seemed to be a tape collated specifically for the performance. We heard songs by Van Morrison, Tracy Chapman, and other mournful ballads about love lost play over the air, all of which seem related to this woman’s deep sadness. But because the whole performance seems to take place in “reality,” the radio program’s status as fact or fiction wasn’t certain. (In a discussion with director Kiernan two days after the performance I saw, Walsh referred to the radio broadcast as in fact happening in real time.)

[Spoiler alert.]

Kroetz’s play ends with the woman’s suicide, a choice her evening’s activities, in retrospect, seem to lead toward throughout. We return with her to her bedroom—spectators crowded around the periphery of the small room, no more than two feet or so from Walsh—and watch as she undresses, uses the attached bathroom, climbs into bed, turns out the light (which plunges us all into shared darkness), and then proceeds to sob. (A number of spectators moved to leave when she turned out the light; they were caught short by her unexpected crying.)

She returns to the kitchen, where she takes out a bottle of what I assumed were prescription sleeping pills. First she takes one, but as she turns the bottle over in her hands, we see her make another decision. She pours all the pills out, arranging them in pairs on a clean plate like a final still life, as orderly as ever, even as she moves toward taking her own life, and begins to swallow them down with gulps of water.

Halfway through, she takes a half-bottle of champagne from the refrigerator and pours it into her glass to chase the rest of the pills. The champagne bubbles over the top of the glass onto the table. She doesn’t wipe it up. And as the sleeve of her dressing gown trails into the wine and she doesn’t react to what 30 minutes ago she would have considered a desecration of her methodical rituals, we know she’s done for.

In one final moment, as the plate is cleared of pills, Walsh suddenly looks up from her sorrowful task, and takes a moment to make clear eye contact sequentially with every spectator in the room. Holding her gaze for that moment is devastating. What is she asking of us, in this final bit of intersubjectivity? Is she blaming us for not taking responsibility for stopping her suicide? Is her surprisingly intense, fiery peering into our eyes meant to accuse us as fellow travelers who didn’t care enough to step in? Or is she simply acknowledging our presence, after these 75 minutes? Is this the character, or Walsh, looking at us so urgently? Was she perhaps just saying goodbye?

I was very moved by this moment, as it highlighted what I’d felt as a connection to Walsh and to my fellow spectators as we made our way through this moment of a life together. The performance requires a bit of endurance; that is, the apartment gets stuffy and close as we stand, jockeying for position to see Walsh’s actions but also moving out of her way when necessary.

And the intimacy of the evening is unusual; we’re not accustomed to being that close to a performer, or to being able to see one another so clearly as we comprise an audience. That we can look wherever we wish throughout the performance means that we see one another, as well as Walsh. As a result, I was aware of how I directed my gaze, and felt clear responsibility for where and when I moved and looked.

Because the woman is anonymous, you’re invited to project yourself into her actions and her final choice. The heartbreak of Request Programme isn’t necessarily that we mourn this particular woman’s decision to end her life; we don’t know her. And there’s nothing particularly desperate about her circumstances; even her casual clothes are elegant, and her apartment and its fixtures are tastefully high-end. It’s not economic despair that moves her to take her life. But perhaps we mourn the deadening rituals and routines of our own lives, however comfortable they are or aren’t, and consider how easy it would be for us, too, to slip from motivation to despair.

In another artists’ discussion at the festival, playwright Enda Walsh, who worked with Eileen Walsh and Pat Kiernan as part of Corcadorca in the mid-90s, said that his own plays are all about his wonder at how it is that we survive at all, how we move through each day determined to keep living. Request Programme offers the grim flipside, when that determination ends and someone decides to simply stop.

Witnessing a character make that choice, in a performance in which you make your own choices about where, when, and how to position yourself around her, makes the project of survival poignant indeed.

The Feminist Spectator

Request Programme, by Franz Xaver Kroetz, starring Eileen Walsh, directed by Pat Kiernan, produced by Corcadorca for the Galway Arts Festival, July 11, 2011.

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Theatre in Ireland: Give Me Your Hand and The Cripple of Inishmaan

I’ve been living and teaching in Galway, Ireland, since the beginning of June, working with my co-teacher Stacy Wolf, 15 Princeton students, and five local students in a Princeton Global Seminar called “Performing Irishness:  Performance and Theater in Modern and Contemporary Ireland.”Galway is a lovely, small university town on the west coast of the country, boasting a modest city center with twisting medieval-style streets lined with pubs and shops, and buskers with guitar cases or hats in front of them, looking for spare euros.  The docks are crowded with pleasure boats and colorful old wooden fishing vessels, and the row houses that line the harbor are quaint and low.

In Ireland, work that would be considered “mainstream” in the U.S. centers on three central institutional theatres:  The Abbey in Dublin, where we’ll be seeing a production of Brian Friel’s Translations at the beginning of July; to a lesser extent, the Gate, also in Dublin, where we hope to see a production of Friel’s Molly Sweeney; and the artistically adventurous and politically-minded Druid Theatre here in Galway.

Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes was one of the first women ever to win a Tony Award for Best Director (in 1998, for Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Julie Taymor also won that year for her direction of the musical The Lion King).  Hynes has lead Druid for most of its existence. The company began in 1975, started by Hynes and two other then-university students, and has built a reputation in the last 35+ years as a major incubator for Irish artists.

The company’s home is a former tea warehouse, a structure with stone walls that dates back to the 14th century.  The performance space is a small black box, fronted by a crowded rectangular lobby.  A second floor rehearsal room with a wood floor and a cathedral ceiling has square windows that look out over the narrow alley Druid calls home.

Tim Smith, the company’s British managing director, told us when he met with our class that Druid actually gentrified Galway’s city center when they started the company and took over the warehouse.  The mostly abandoned area has grown into a vibrant tourist magnet with a lively pub culture.  Druid uses Galway’s nearby 400-seat Town Hall, a producing venue with ever-changing fare, for larger productions, since it’s financially more viable than their home base, which seats just over 90.

We were lucky enough to see Give Me Your Hand on June 21st in Druid’s space.  The two-person performance is a lovely evening of reader’s theatre based on Irish poet Paul Durcan’s poems, in which he uses famous paintings in London’s National Gallery as prompts for stories.  The performance’s web site quotes Bryan Robertson’s introduction to Durcan’s collection:  “He glides in and out of the subject or content of each painting that inspires him.  He projects himself into the personages, the situations, treats the paintings like kites in the gusty air of his imagination.”  This succinct description captures the spirit of the performance, too.

The inventive poems are brought to life by the eminent Irish actors Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy, who read them from music stands poised across from one another.  They face the audience underneath pictures of the paintings that the poems they read bring to life.   Projected from a laptop that Crowley controls remotely, the images cross-fade and dissolve after each story, which imagine the relationships the paintings depict in funny, often anachronistic ways.

The poems and the conceit are instantly charming and delightful.  Each painting presents new characters, which Crowley and Molloy imbue with new accents and attitudes without ever moving from behind their stands.  The two consummate actors establish a basic warmth between them and the audience that carries the stories into the short evening.  Each little tale is unique and sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes a bit sad or moving.

The evening is a testament to simple creativity, to the evocative sounds and stories of well-written words, and to the embodiments of actors who can create place and character with simple shifts of tone, voice, and dialect.  The delicious performance toured a few U.S. cities in 2011; the web site provides chunks of the poems as teasers and images of the paintings used as inspiration.

Druid’s production of McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan has just returned home after a six-month tour through the U.S. and Ireland, during which they visited nine American cities.  The Hynes-directed production, performed for hometown audiences at Town Hall on an imaginative set designed by Hyne’s frequent collaborator, Francis O’Connor, received a rapturous response in Galway before the cast and crew headed out to the Aran Islands, on which the play is set, to perform for locals on Inishmaan itself last weekend as the tour’s final flourish.

Although local news coverage suggests the production was well-received (and significant enough that Ireland’s president attended, along with McDonagh and his parents), Cripple doesn’t exactly flatter the Aran Islanders.  Set in 1934, the play slices off a moment in the lives of a colorful collection of odd and salty Irish types, all united by their reactions to “Cripple Billy.”

Billy Claven (Tadhg Murphy) is a young man who was orphaned when his parents drowned under mysterious circumstances and was taken in by spinster sisters Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy), who’ve cared for the unfortunate, physically misshapen but spiritually dreamy boy ever since.

McDonagh propels the plot around the moment when Hollywood filmmakers came to Inishmaan to make Man of Aran, a pseudo-documentary about the locals.  The crudely sexual Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) and her hapless brother, Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), bribe BabbyBobby (Liam Carney), a local fisherman, to take them to the nearby island of Inishmore to audition for the film.

Hearing their plan, Billy, too, decides to try his luck, concocting a scheme to persuade BabbyBobby to take him along, despite the superstitions against “cripples” on the sea, to meet the Hollywood producers.  Ironically, it’s Billy who’s selected to come to Hollywood to continue his audition, leaving his friends and his aunts behind to grouse about his lack of communication and gratitude.

JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley) is the local town gossip, who eavesdrops at doorways and around corners to collect people’s personal news, which he trades with neighbors for canned goods or other comestibles.  JohnnyPateen lives with his ancient, alcoholic mother, Mammy O’Dougal (Nancy E. Carroll), who’s sharp as a whip but immobile except for the arm that lifts her bottle of potcheen, an old-fashioned Irish rot-gut liquor much like moonshine.  The fussy JohnnyPateen expects quite a lot from Kate and Eileen in exchange for his information (which they mostly find useless), but his constant prattling brings a comforting kind of company.

Young Slippy Helen’s job is to deliver eggs, despite her preference for throwing them at people or breaking them over her brother’s head.  She enlivens the local atmosphere with mean accounts of her sexual ministrations for the island’s men (although mostly, she admits, its priests whose private parts she’s seen most of, letting McDonagh draw blood from one of his favorite targets—the Catholic Church).

Cripple is a dark comedy, boasting the biting satire and sometimes cruel humor for which McDonagh is known (and often considered controversial).  Although he was raised and lives in the U.K., his Irish-born parents brought him to summer in Ireland’s Connemara throughout his youth.  Whether or not this gives him leave to boldly (or viciously) parody local mores is an open question. Cripple achieves its comedy through a rather absurdist use of language and pacing, especially under Hynes’s precise direction and the actors’ well-honed and finely timed delivery.

In Cripple’s opening scene, for instance, Kate and Eileen stand behind the counter of the local store they own, staring into the distance, hands idle, eyes never meeting, repeating one another’s sentences as they wait for Billy to arrive.  The two performers execute the hilarious scene beautifully.  Later, once Billy’s left for America, a similar scene uses the same style to repeat the phrase “not a word” more times than one would ever think possible, with growing levels of intense, comic, resentment for Billy’s disappearance from Kate and Eileen’s lives.

As played by Murphy, Billy is a soulful, sensitive young man, whose physical disabilities prevent him from fully taking part in the life of the town.  His ill-formed arm and his hobbled leg give him a shuffling gait, but his face is much sweeter than his aunts initially suggest, and there’s nothing wrong with his mind or his emotions.  The other characters, McDonagh suggests, need Billy’s difference to secure their own normalcy, even though they, too, are far from typical.

Billy’s struggle for dignity is told through his interactions with the others, for whom his escape to Hollywood proves something of a catalyst.  But we hear no more from him than we do from the others, resisting the impulse to make him anything of a hero.  McDonagh renders Billy’s actions and his future ambiguous, ending the play on a cruel irony.  But he suggests that in many ways, everyone in Inishmaan is crippled—only Billy’s handicap manifests physically.

The Druid production boasts the settled confidence of one that’s toured on and off since 2008.  The acting is sure and easy; you can tell how much fun the actors have together, and how lived-in their characters feel.  In a talk-back after one of the three performances presented at Town Hall this week, managing director Smith facilitated a conversation with Craigie (who played Kate), Dunne (who played Helen), and Carroll (who played Mammy), who described the various reactions to the production in Ireland and in the U.S.

Although they outlined the cross-national differences in response, Smith and the actors declined the production’s status as a national export that “represents” the country abroad.  Smith says that Druid’s mission is to do good work by Irish writers, but aside from that simple criterion, they don’t seem partisan to what “Irishness” might mean.

Aside from a bit of vocabulary, the dialect and syntax of the language, and the Aran Islands setting, the play resonates with a perhaps universally western understanding of life in a small town circa 1930, suffocating to some and comforting to others, where everyone knows one another’s business and the choices to enlarge one’s life are few.  Seeing the play on the islands, however, might bring it new colors and meanings.

In the second act, the villagers watch the film Man of Aran together in a public place, perplexed over what the fuss is about.  The Cripple program relates that the documentary, directed by the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty in 1934, “depicted the supposed ‘daily life’ of characters living on the Aran Islands . . . Many situations were fabricated, such as one in which fishermen are almost lost at sea on a shark hunt.”

Watching the film with ill-concealed apathy, Helen and the others focus comically on whether or not the fishermen have caught a shark (and whether, in fact, sharks swim in Irish waters).  They clearly don’t for a second imagine that the film has anything at all to do with their lives, even though it was meant to faithfully represent their “otherness.”

In McDonagh’s sly account, the film might be a metaphor for his own play.  Seeing that scene on Inishmaan, among islanders who the film and McDonagh’s play purport to be about, was probably deliciously layered and complicated.  (An account of the production on the RTE news features Ireland’s President’s attendance and solicits post-show comments from well-heeled spectators.  It’s not clear whether the more rural residents of Inishmaan were part of the audience.)  Whatever Druid intends about performing Irishness in Ireland and abroad or not, the enactment of identity and the impossibility of fixing a national character should be palpable.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.