Saturday, March 17, 2018

181 (2017-2018): Review: THREE SMALL IRISH MASTERPIECES (seen March 15, 2018)

"A Broth of a Show"

That they’re all “small,” in the sense of brief, no one can dispute, nor can their being as Irish as St. Patrick’s Day. What might be open for discussion, though, is whether, without diminishing their general quality, each play being given at the Irish Repertory Theatre under the rubric of Three Small Irish Masterpieces is indeed a “masterpiece.”

Adam Petherbridge. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Regardless, this polished revival program offers a rare chance to see examples of one-acts that—under the umbrella of terms like the Celtic Revival, Celtic Twilight, and the Irish Literary Renaissance—inspired the creation of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1902 and the birth in 1904 of the Abbey Theatre, home of the Irish Dramatic Movement.

The intermissionless, 75-minute bill includes William Butler Yeats’s “The Pot of Broth” (1902 in most sources but noted in the program as 1903), written in collaboration with Lady Gregory; Gregory’s “The Rising of the  Moon” (1907); and John Millington Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” (1904). All three are “folk plays,” so to speak, or "genre pieces," dealing with members of the Irish underclass whose lives may be bleak but are nonetheless redolent with vibrant verbal dexterity and spiritual resilience.

The Irish Rep’s tiny basement stage, in the Scott McLucas Studio, displays James Morgan’s distinctively naturalistic setting for all three plays, the gloomy interior of a dank, dismal, rural cottage: a door, a fireplace, and a window. Much use is also made of entrances and exits directly through the audience. Irish folk songs, solos and choral, accompanied mainly by guitar and fiddle, precede the first two plays. Linda Fisher’s costumes combine historical accuracy with theatrical flourish, helping greatly to bring these period pieces to life.
Colin Lane, David O'Hara, Clare O'Malley. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“The Pot of Broth” starts the evening off with a light, comic touch that grows darker in the following plays. John Coneelly (Colin Lane), a kindhearted peasant, and his skinflint wife, Sibby (Clare O’Malley), meet a Tramp (David O’Hara) who has sneaked into their hovel. The Tramp, a conman/trickster, can get a meal only by employing his oral and physical wiles. He thus convinces the gullible Sibby that he has a magic stone with which he can produce an endless supply of delicious broth by adding just a bit of water. Once he pulls off the deception, he departs with the chicken Sibby was preparing to feed the local priest. Seeing the priest coming for his dinner, the henpecked John wryly suggests that Sibby make use of her new stone.

Some have found thematic undercurrents here, such as English stupidity (Sibby) being upended by Irish smarts (John and the Tramp), but, with nothing specifically British about Sibby, most people will appreciate the play simply as a charming case of selfishness being hoist by its own petard. The fine actors—particularly O’Hara in the flamboyant central role—lovingly wrap their brogues around the juicy words. It’s pleasantly diverting but far short of a masterpiece.
Colin Lane. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In “The Rising of the Moon,” set on a wharf, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting makes us forget the peasant home in the background for a play combining humor with nationalist propaganda. Its story is that of a bounty-hunting Irish police sergeant (Colin Lane), in service to the English, seeking a fugitive political rebel (Adam Petherbridge) who might want to flee by sea. A ragged balladeer arrives, recognizes the face on a wanted poster, describes the allegedly dangerous man to the interested sergeant, induces him to acknowledge his own patriotic impulses, gets him to join in a nationalistic ballad (“The Rising of the Moon”), and even convinces the secretly Ireland-loving sergeant to let him escape (at the price of a substantial reward), albeit not without the officer later doubting his decision.
Colin Lane, Adam Petherbridge. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Originally done as a curtain-raiser, “The Rising of the Moon” is interesting for its political and historical associations. It’s given an atmospheric, if leisurely, presentation but doesn’t make a particularly strong impression. Audiences will have to wait for the evening’s final play before they find a true masterpiece. 
Clare O'Malley, Jennifer McVey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
That, of course, is Synge’s “Riders to the Sea,” the tragic tale of Maurya (Terry Donnelly), a fisherman’s widow on a dreary outpost of the Aran Islands, who has lost her husband and five sons to the sea. During the play, while confirmation of one son’s fate is awaited, her remaining son, Bartley (Adam Petherbridge), ventures to the Galway fair on the mainland, despite a threatening omen his mother has imagined. Sadly, he, too, meets a watery death, his body being carried in and laid out on the table as his mother and chorus-like sisters, Nora (Clare O’Malley) and Cathleen (Jennifer McVey), keen over him. 
Terry Donnelly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The movingly acted production captures the play’s elegiac, fatalistic tone, with Donnelly giving a powerful portrayal in the difficult role of the grieving mother. Her final line, “No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied,” is one of the most famous in Irish dramaturgy. 
Company of Three Small Irish Masterpieces. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
While only one of these plays is a universally acknowledged masterpiece, they are all masterfully done. For that, lovers of Irish drama interested in seeing what it had to offer just as it was about to achieve international recognition will be deeply grateful.


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through April 22