Triumphant Celtic Revival

Four-plus hours of early 20th century drama may not sound like your idea of a great way to spend a weekend, but the inventive and intrepid Irish Repertory Theatre has put together a production that might just change your mind. Presented over two evenings, The Yeats Project is comprised of eight fully-staged one act plays by William Butler Yeats. During the Rep’s Yeats festival, all of Yeats' plays (26 in total) will grace the Irish Rep stage as either readings or full productions from April 8 to May 3. The evening billed as Cycle A features Yeats’ very first play, The Countess Cathleen; The Cat and the Moon; and On Baile’s Strand. Irish Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Charlotte Moore directs all three plays.

The Countess Cathleen is a quaint morality tale with Faustian overtones set in “olden times” Ireland. Given the benign quality of the script, it comes as something of a shock to find out that, when first produced in Dublin by Yeats in 1899, dozens of police officers were called to the theater to repel protesters, a Catholic Cardinal and Catholic students signed vehement protests, and the local newspaper wrote vicious condemnations daily. All of this took place because the play’s saintly Countess Cathleen, who sells her soul to save the starving populace, is spared by God at the end of the play. In 1899, when you sold your soul to the devil, it was unacceptable to expect (or depict) any outcome but the worst. A play about a merciful God who forgave the sin was blasphemous and unacceptable.

In a modern context, the text seems almost whimsically virtuous. Terry Donnelly (Countess Cathleen) and Fiana Tiobin (Oona, her nurse) manage to imbue their performances with enough urgency and reality to keep the play from sliding into melodrama, and Patrick Fitzgerald’s delightfully manic demon enlivens things. Director Moore creates a rather static world, and the actors seem uncomfortably placed at times. But a large scrim at the back of the theater featuring an outstanding series of projections by designer Jan Hartley provides context and enhances the mood of the play with gorgeous Irish landscapes and castle interiors.

One of Yeats’ prose comedies follows, The Cat and the Moon, which features an increasingly likeable Fitzgerald as a blind beggar and Sean Gormley as his crippled companion. The men have come to a saint’s shrine to beg for cures for their afflictions and end up descending into delightfully entertaining squabbles over injustices, imagined and real, that they have committed against one another. Justin Stoney, Amanda Sprecher, and William J. Ward are introduced as a wandering troupe of musicians and quickly become on of the major high points in the production. This trio play pipes, lutes, violins and drums to great effect in plays throughout the two nights. In particular, Stoney dazzles on a simple recorder-style pipe and sings Irish folk songs as if he were born to do nothing else.

About On Baile’s Strand, Yeats said, in his notes to Notes to Poems 1899-1905, that it “must always be a little overcomplicated when played by itself. And that is something of an understatement. The play is part of a cycle of five plays Yeats wrote about the legendary Irish king Cuchulain. It is play of great lyrical power and prowess, but demands a lot of the audience. The play discusses at length the political pressures of the emerging unification of feudal Ireland and is burdened with a lot of exposition for a rather simple story. Cuchulain once loved a fierce Scottish queen who has sent her son to her court to kill him. At its best, the play feels like one of Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays. Kevin Collins manages some riveting moments as King Cuchulain, despite having some of the most cumbersome dialogue. And Stoney creates a menacing yet still deeply-touching character with The Young Man.

Cycle B, the second evening, includes The Land of Heart’s Desire, directed by Moore, and four plays directed by producing director Ciarán O’Reilly: The Pot of Broth; Purgatory, A Full Moon in March, and Cathleen Ni Houlihan.

The Land of Heart’s Desire was, during Yeats’ lifetime, his most-produced play. It is easy to see the charm of this simply presented fairytale about an newly-married Irish country girl who is seduced away from hearth and home by a wicked fairy child. Standout Fiona Tobin, as the young wife’s bitterly complaining mother-in-law Bridget, delivers a wonderfully realized and recognizable Irish shrew. Ward (Bridget’s husband Maurteen) and Peter Cormican (as a hapless Catholic priest Father Hart) are also superb and make the language sing as they try to persuade the young wife not to run off with the fairies. Director Moore slightly deflates the energy in the play by introducing the supernatural element, in the form of Sprecher (the Fairy Child) rather bluntly. Although Sprecher is a likeable young actress, skipping onstage in something that looks like an Ice Capades outfit and proclaiming yourself a fairy child only works well in drag shows.

One of the festival highlights is introduced next, The Pot of Broth. This exuberant and joyous comedy is laugh out loud funny from the first moment, when Donnelly (Sibby) runs across stage screaming bloody murder and energetically chasing down a bedraggled chicken. The play is a simple Irish folk story in which a Tramp stops by the house of a miserly woman and tricks her into feeding him dinner using nothing but his wits and a bucket-load of artful lies. Fitzgerald could not be better as The Tramp. Blessed with tremendous charm and more than his share of brash Irish blarney, Fitzgerald fills his role with an oily obsequiousness that is pure pleasure to watch. Equally delightful, as the miserly and domineering Sibby, Donnelly evokes huge laughs from the audience with every screech and avaricious glance. She is truly an actress at the top of her game. Completing the festival’s best cast, Cormican, as Sibby’s long-suffering husband John, balances her fiery energy with a placidity and slyness that is richly rewarding.

Purgatory is an interesting play that combines a chilling Irish ghost story with elements of the Biblical Isaac and Abraham story. An Old Man (Corrigan) tells his son, Boy (Stoney), the story of his parents’ disastrous marriage and the tragic consequences of their misalliance. Jan Hartley’s wonderful projection of an old Irish manor house helps tell the story in dramatic fashion. However, the actors seem to be trapped in a plodding moroseness that overshadows the complexity of the language. It does not come off as an evolving character study of an initially likeable but ultimately sinister character, but more like the final brooding confession of a melodrama villain.

The lavish and beautifully directed fourth play of the evening, A Full Moon in March, is one of Yeats’ most fully developed ‘dancer plays.’ Although there are dances in several of his plays, the ‘dancer plays’ are classified thusly based on their integral use of dance, masks, ritual, Japanese Noh elements, and experimentation with movement. A Full Moon in March plays on the Salome story and features a cold Queen (Amanda Quaid) who has offered her hand in marriage as the prize in a competition to determine the best singer in the realm. When a grotesque Swineherd (Collins) enters her bedchamber to compete, he learns that she uses the competition as an excuse to cut off the head of competitors that offend her. This is because she is “cruel as the winter of virginity.” The antidote to her cruelty is a consumptive, passionate dance with the swineherd’s severed head, wherein his blood might enter and fertilize her barren womb. The action is underscored with beautiful songs and music by our traveling minstrels (Stoney, Sprecher, and Ward).

A Full Moon in March is the most fully realized play in the festival, and you feel as if Yeats might have sat in and overseen rehearsals. The immediacy and accessibility for modern audiences comes as something of a surprise after the earlier plays, with their quaint and old-fashioned air. Special kudos to costume designer David Toser for the heightened and passionate look of this piece. Quaid is fantastically ferocious and brings just the right balance of harshness and fragility. Collins is utterly transformed by a brilliantly creepy mask from designer Bob Flanagan. Director O’Reilly deserves tremendous credit for seamlessly pulling off an extremely challenging script.

The closing play for Cycle B is, appropriately, the play Yeats received the most critical success with, Cathleen Ni Houlihan. The Cathleen Ni Houlihan mentioned in the title refers to an Irish queen who, in song, represents Ireland itself. The play is set during the 1798 Irish rebellion, which was aided by the French. The plays opens showing us a happy Irish household preparing for the wedding of their young son Michael (Collins). His father (Ward) has eager plans for the bride money. His mother (Donnelly) hopes to send his brother (Stoney) to the priesthood with their new wealth. His brother is looking forward to a puppy the bride has promised him. Into this house enters a strange woman in a dark cloak, Tobin, beautifully vibrant, as Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Cathleen speaks darkly about losing her “four beautiful fields” and about how she can’t return home because there are “too many strangers in the house.” The mother and father see only a strange old woman in need of charity. But Michael and the audience begin to realize the woman is Ireland herself. When the French troops land, Michael must chose between domestic tranquility and fighting for his beloved Ireland.

The politics are as relevant and the emotions just as stirring today as when Yeats wrote Cathleen Ni Houlihan. It is sparsely staged and subtlety performed, choices which contribute to the simplicity and strength of the message. All in all, the play is a rousing conclusion to a truly epic and largely successful adventure in dramatic revival. Yeats would be proud.

A festival pass good for one admission to all Yeats Projects events is $100. Single tickets to both Cycle A and Cycle B performances are $65 and $55. For more information and a detailed calendar of events visit http://www.irishrep.org.

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