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Three Small Irish Masterpieces
Pot of Broth by William Butler Yeats with Lady Gregory (1903),The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory (1907), Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge (1904)
By Deirdre Donovan

They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me.... — Maurya, from Riders to the Sea
Terry Donnelly in Riders to the Sea, a part of Three Small Irish Masterpieces.(© Carol Rosegg)
Three Small Irish Masterpieces is the perfect answer to that pressing question on how to celebrate St. Patricks' Day in the Big Apple. Now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, and directed by Charlotte Moore, this presentation resurrects William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory's Pot of Broth, Lady Gregory's The Rising of the Moon, and John Millington Synge's Riders to the Sea with meticulous care and feeling.

It's no accident that these one-acters have been gathered together in this triptych. The luminaries were at the vanguard of the Irish Literary Renaissance and helped to develop a strong sense of national identity during the Home Rule political movement in the late 19th and early 20th century in Ireland.

. First up is the humorous Pot of Broth (1903), written cheek by jowl by Yeats and Lady Gregory. Set in rural Ireland, it tells the tale of a nameless Tramp (David O'Hara) and a married couple, John Coneely (Colin Lane) and his young social-climbing wife Sibby (Clare O'Malley).

When the lights go up, the Tramp is surreptitiously entering the couple's empty cottage, in hope of finding a ready meal. His search is thwarted by the sudden return of the Coneelys who have a freshly-plucked chicken in hand, which Sibby intends to cook and serve later that day when the local priest joins them for dinner. Undaunted by his awkward situation, the Tramp reaches into his satchel bag, takes out a "magical" stone, and tells the Coneelys that he can transform a pot of hot water into a hearty broth in a twinkling. The gullible Sibby obliges--and the Tramp drops his stone into a pot of water simmering on the hearth. As he serenades and sweet-talks Sibby, he slyly adds a nearby onion, ham-bone, meal, and the chicken. When the Tramp offers Sibby a taste of the broth, she is convinced that it was the stone that changed the water into a delicious soup. With seeming generosity, the Tramp hands Sibby the charmed stone for her future culinary use. And the grateful couple, in exchange, give the stranger some broth and a bottle of whiskey. The Tramp departs--just as the priest starts heading toward the cottage for dinner.

Like many Irish folktales, The Pot of Broth operates on multiple levels. It tugs laughs from the audience as a trickster tale but many folklorists insist that this turn-of-the-century tale is actually a veiled political attack against the British government, with the Tramp representing the displaced Irish people. But no matter how you interpret The Pot of Broth, it definitely is a gem that glitters with humor and wild Irish imagination.

The second offering, Lady Gregory's The Rising of the Moon, also involves a trickster though it unfolds in a more somber key. First staged in 1907 by the Irish National Theatre, it delves into the recesses of the human heart and the humanity that, in crucial moments, can surface surprisingly. It focuses on an old Sergeant (Colin Lane) and a raggedy Man (Adam Petherbridge).

As the play begins, the Sergeant is on watch for an escaped prisoner, a purported master-mind who possesses Houdini-like powers for slipping out of any physical restraints. While the evident dangers of his job put his nerves on a razor's edge, the Sergeant also muses on winning the reward money of a hundred pounds and a sure promotion in the Force. Rather than be a spoiler to this well-crafted tale, let's just say that what unspools during the Sergeant's vigil is a study in human psychology and compassion. And, oh yes, expect a nod to the 16th-century Irish pirate queen Granuaile and a chance to hear the ancient ballad dedicated to her name. Like Pot of Broth, this story is saturated with political overtones of Anglo-Irish relations in Ireland. This tale has few laughs but it can penetrate to the very core of your psyche.

A genuine tragedy washes in with Synge's Riders to the Sea. Set on the Aran island of Inishmaan, it centers on the native islanders' perpetual struggle against the merciless force of the sea. The play revolves around a mother named Maurya whose son Michael has been lost at sea for 9 days and presumed drowned. Though Maurya already has mourned the deaths of four other sons at sea, not to mention her husband's father and husband, but Michael is her "favorite" son and his disappearance all but breaks her spirit. Worse, her only remaining son Bartley (Adam Petherbridge) is bent on going to sea that day to sell a horse in Connemara.

While I'm very familiar with this drama, Moore's staging of it opened my ears to new resonances in its poetic language. In fact, the first line intoned by Nora--"Where is she?" (referring to Maurya)--rings out with the same unsettling vagueness of Hamlet opening: "Who's there?" Little surprise that both plays are about the tragedies of young men dying before their time, leaving the survivors to ponder the dark mysteries and questions surrounding their deaths. While the characters in Riders to the Sea are clearly Roman Catholics (a young priest who remains off-stage is the person who brings Michael's "shirt and a plain stocking" to Nora), there's a strong undertow of paganism in the play. And it underscores the desolation of these peasants who are Christian by name but stoics by heart

The ensemble acting is seamlessly executed here, with many performers taking on multiple roles and doubling as musicians. Nobody hogs the spotlight but a true ensemble effort.

Nothing but kudos belongs to the creative team. James Morgan's authentic-looking set, abetted by Michael Gottlieb's half-lighting, conjures up, in turns, an old-fashioned Irish kitchen (The Pot of Broth, a godforsaken waterfront in Ireland (The Rising of the Moon), and finally a return to the interior of an Irish cottage (Riders to the Sea). From the brown turf-stained walls. . . to the old barrel on the waterfront . . . to the St. Bridget's cross over the door lintel, you will feel that you have been transported to the Emerald Isle itself.

All in all, this triple-decker culled from the "Celtic Twilight" (Yeat"s nickname for the Irish Literary Renaissance), is a golden theatrical experience. It's a journey into Ireland's literary past — and you don't have to travel thousands of miles to experience it.

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Three Small Irish Masterpieces
The Pot of Broth by William Butler Yeats & Lady Gregory
The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory
Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Colin Lane, Terry Donnelly, Clare O'Malley, David O'Hara, Adam Petherbridge, Jennifer McVey
Sets: James Morgan
Costumes: Linda Fisher
Lighting: Michael Gottlieb
Running Time: 80 minutes
W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage atIrish Rep Theatre 132 West 22nd Street
From 3/0/18; opening 3/11/18; closing 4/15/18.
Performances: Wednesdays 3pm & 8pm, Thursday: 7pm, Friday: 8pm, Saturday 3pm & 8pm, Sunday 3pm
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at 3/09/18 press preview

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