Thursday, November 16, 2006

Review of Irish Repertory Theatre's "The Playboy of the Western World"

I’m going to go out on a very short limb and argue that if Melissa Lynch gives one more performance this season equal to her Pegeen Mike in J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (or her Agnes from six months ago), that she is the most promising young actress in Philadelphia today. Synge’s dark comedy, about a stranger who captures the attention of a rural Irish town, is currently playing at Plays and Players, in co-production with the Irish Repertory Theatre.

Much of the plot in Playboy is driven by disparities: between stories and truth, bravado and cowardice, admiration and eventual disdain. These evince themselves in the very language spoken—Christy Mahon, roundly admired for “destroying his dad” by a town that believes that “a daring fellow is the jewel of the world,” is eventually castigated by them for his duplicity when told “there’s a great gap between a gallant story and a dirty deed.”

Unfortunately, great gaps plague this production as well. The directing sounds its fault line between a roaringly funny act one and two and the completely mismanaged third that follows; the acting places an even ensemble and two amazing female performances against their relatively weak male counterparts; and the sets and costumes showcase a careful attention that find no balance in the underused lighting and sound design.

Director John Gallagher manufactures most of these imbalances. Each of the first two acts he crafts skillfully with their own color and tone, while still uniting them flawlessly. The first is a dark night tinged with fire and mystery, the second, a revealing ray of morning, illuminating some secrets, while concealing others in further intrigue. These both possess great humor and depth, as Gallagher seems capable of staging anything but tension and violent physical action, both of which the third act requires in equal measure. Because of this, in act three, the humor remains, but the precipice of action that should have captivated instead falls flat, and renders the play’s finale into an end both false and completely unsatisfying.

The only even and coherent element of Gallagher’s staging lies in the liveliness of the ensemble. Act three apart, he arranges them to effects both spirited—in the gaggle of women that flock about Christy—to poignant, in the two barflies placed leisurely off to the side, treating all the drama with hilarious commentary (and that well-wrought by McKeever and Scott Robertson).

Against this solid body, the imbalance between the two women in Lynch’s Pegeen and Kate Danaher’s completely safe yet faultless performance as the Widow Quinn, stand Matt Taylor’s uneven Christy and Doug Greene’s neurotically timid Shawn Keogh. Taylor plays the playboy of the title, but lacks charm, with no smoothness to his character, and no alluring rough edges either. By a strange contrast, he’s the only one (save Lynch) that manages to stoke the fires of tension and anger in act three, where he finally hits the right notes; but by this point the change is too unbelievable, as he never gave us enough early glimpses to justify his eventual rage.

Then there is Lynch, who “possessing the devil’s own temper,” nearly redeems all these defects in full. Her performance is full of fire and passion, and infused with true verve stands as the only reliable constant in this play. One moment a viper, the next the tenderest of souls, she effects all her transitions seamlessly, with no overplay, giving a completely natural performance, effected beautifully. Her eventual moment of anguish is both dark and shameful, and yet tenderly comic in its remorse.

Despite any imbalances, Synge’s play stands as the supreme reason to see this production. Full of rich humor and beautiful imagery, the sheer poetry of the language Playboy offers is nothing short of Shakespeare. From the humble first moments of a mysterious stranger on a wind-blown night to the devastating reversal of his fortunes, this play will always succeed in producing anguish and laughter touched with sympathy and regret. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review of Villanova's production of "TheTempest" 11-08-06

An Imperfect Storm

Prospero, the sorcerer of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is consumed with vengeance, and uses his power to dictate events to this end. Many describe him as a megalomaniac, which makes it understandable that Villanova’s Shawn Kairschner chose to set this play within the confines of a Victorian era insane asylum.

However, Kairschner foregoes this understanding, instead casting Prospero as the chief doctor, who, in a play-within-the-play setting, directs the inmates and hospital staff in a production of Shakespeare’s play. The action then shifts back and forth, between the play overseen by Dr. Prospero, and the presence of Prospero himself in Shakespeare’s work. The play opens on a cluttered stage, filled with inmates milling about, trying on costumes, arranging the sets, and rehearsing their ‘lines.’ However, by the time The Tempest begins, confusion has already descended on this production.

The confusion only deepens, as Kairschner eviscerates the script, whittles away the characters, and substitutes, insanely enough, song, dance, and chanting, some of which breaks down into the gibberish and guttural whispers of the inmates. Some of this is very fitting, but beyond the scope of the play, which needed another hour, and that of Shakespeare. The Tempest is often absent, and only minimally evident. When Kairschner must return to the text, the intensity drops considerably in contrast, especially in the last act.

Brian McCann, as Prospero, is too fragile, too brittle to be believable as either the doctor running the inmates, or as Prospero dominating the players. Kristi Good, playing Ariel, speaks her lines beautifully, at times declaiming them like poetry. The remainder of the ensemble is similarly uneven, and a more experienced company could have achieved greater success. With all that Kairschner demands, this cast cannot overcome his ambitions.

However, brilliant touches flourish amidst this chaos. Kairschner’s interpretation depicts Caliban’s monstrosity as the behavior of a demented psychopath, superbly acted by Chris Braak. Trinculo hilariously speaks half his lines through a sock puppet, and Janus Stefanowicz dons everyone magnificently. All of the stagecraft is exemplary, particularly Mike Worth’s haunting original music, Jerold Forsyth’s lighting, and the dizzying and unending movement of the players in Kairschner’s staging. At the end of act one, all these elements combine to tremendous effect, as Caliban’s revolt descends into a prison riot that is both violent and electrifying. Moreover, the energy of the cast throughout magnifies every effect beyond merely entertaining.

Despite the problems, this is the kind of interpretation that a production should strive after. Most directors merely throw a coat of paint on Shakespeare, focusing upon some singular political theme, or historical period relevance. Kairschner’s attempt is bold and imaginative, completely transforming the work while still embodying its essence. The bars surrounding the stage, like the political intrigue that motivates the play, all form part of the “baseless fabric of a vision” that imprisons everyone. In this, Kairschner brilliantly remakes the world of The Tempest into the distorted reality of an asylum, where the surreal conduct of the inmates, coupled with the devolution of the text into song, define an existence in which the players truly become “such stuff as dreams are made on.”