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A CurtainUp Review
Brian Friel Festival, Lincoln Center Festival 99
By Les GutmanBrian Friel Festival, Lincoln Center Festival 99
NOTE: To commemorate the 70th birthday of Irish playwright Brian Friel, the 1999 Lincoln Center Festival includes a trio of his plays performed by two renowned Dublin theater companies as well as two symposia on Friel and Irish theater. The first two plays are offered substantially in tandem (both running daily except Monday through July 18). The final show runs the following week (July 20 - 25 only). CurtainUp's review of the latter will be added after it opens.
This year is not only Brian Friel's 70th, it is also his 40th as a published playwright. To celebrate the achievements of someone with as broad a body of work as Friel by performing only three of his plays is a tricky business. Lincoln Center has done an inspired job of framing the man it reasonably describes as Ireland's greatest living playwright. Instead of opting for his best-known plays, the festival focuses on plays which illuminate the varied dimensions of Friel's playwriting interests: from strident urban settings to bucolic country ones, from political to apolitical, from 19th Century Russia to 20th Century Ireland.
There is a geologic theory, one can imagine, that Ireland was once attached to Russia near Saint Petersburg, and that in some seismic shift, it floated out of the Baltic Sea and to its present location. It is tempting to employ such a notion to explain Friel's affinity for the Russians as most recently evident from his new version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. It's an especially seductive idea when the Gate Theatre teasingly follows it with Friel's Aristocrats, probably Friel's most "Chekhovian" play.
Friel does not transplant the Serebryakov estate where Vanya is set from the provincial Russian forests; and the clop-clop-clop of horses can still be heard. Marina (played wonderfully and wisely by Daphne Carroll) still frets about keeping hot tea in the samovar.
But the play now has the overlay of a distinctly Irish sensibility. Are they brewing Irish Tea? I don't know, but "tea" is now not only a beverage but also a meal. Friel has in fact rethought the play particularly with a view to its accessibility to contemporary Irish audiences. For American audiences, this could be disconcerting but, as rendered by the Gate Theatre, is not. Friel shows little restraint in revising details, or in installing his own cadences or metaphors, but he remains devoted to Chekhov's restrained storytelling and its underlying sense of humanity. It's a new but familiar experience for old friends of Chekhov, and a thoroughly pleasing one for newcomers as well. (For reference, and more details, I reviewed another Uncle Vanya back in 1997, and it is linked below.)
Director Ben Barnes stylishly stages this classic with heightened attention to character development and relationships, and comparatively little reliance on extraneous entertainment. And for good reason: the acting here is a joy to behold. You may see many Vanya's in a lifetime, but Niall Buggy's performance here would be hard to surpass. He is suitably anguished and dismayed in his "showy" confrontation with the professor (T.P. McKenna) after the intermission, but it is in his more elegant moments, as in his scene with Elena (Susannah Harker) and then alone, that he impresses most. As does she. Harker's cool "sea nymph" sets the tone here, and again in relation with Sonya (a buoyant Donna Dent). These three exceptional performances are the foundation of this production, buttressed by strong efforts by John Kavanaugh as the self-pitying doctor and Eamon Morrissey as Telegin (contributing much unabashedly Celtic flavor as the genetically sudoriferous gentleman who long ago fell on hard times).
The design team has taken its cue from Chekhov's subtitle: "Scenes from Country Life." David Gaucher's stunningly attractive set, surrounded on all four sides by fields of wheat, is simple, agile and evocative. Rupert Murray's lighting moves with the action, from late summer to early fall, from afternoon to late evening, and even through thunderstorms. Both are well accented by Jacqueline Kobler's fastidious costumes, which rely largely on beiges and mustards. Sound effects, uncredited, complete the exceptional mise-en-scène.
If Uncle Vanya exceeds expectations, The Abbey Theatre's The Freedom of the City disappoints. It's a play that, on the surface at least, bears no resemblance to Uncle Vanya. Here, we see a Friel than seems closer kin to Brecht than to Chekhov. Unlike most of his plays which (like Aristocrats which follows) are set in the fictional village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Freedom is set in Derry City, Northern Ireland, in 1970. But look closer and you will see that Friel is no purveyor of agit-prop. The power of this play is in letting things "just happen" a la Vanya. Conall Morrison, a bright young director, misses this point, and thus loses his way.
In The Freedom of the City, Friel traffics in the perspective he knows best: the outsider. Fictional but essentially based on the horrific events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre (in which fourteen Catholic protesters, none armed, were killed by British troops who, after a British judicial whitewashing were absolved of responsibility ), the play focuses on three disparate Catholic marchers who accidentally stumble into the Mayor's office in the Derry City Guildhall amid a torrent of rubber bullets, CS gas and water cannons. It is Friel's genius that expresses in these characters the range of issues and the emotions of the place.
The significance of their "accident" may escape American audiences, but would be immediately evident to any resident of the town. For Catholics in Northern Ireland, by definition poor and disenfranchised, outsiders in their own land, the Guildhall was terra incognita, the bastion of Unionist power. And they are now in its inner sanctum.
Was this a political act? Even for the most political of the three, twenty-two year old Michael Hegarty (Gerard Crossan), decidedly not. He was an intelligent, idealistic, earnest fighter for the Nationalist cause, but neither terrorism nor even taking over buildings was on his agenda. Crossan gives him just the right dose of demure vexation at their circumstance. For Adrian Casimir "Skinner" Fitzgerald (Michael Colgan), age 21 and not yet developed into a man, marches and protest were sport, but beneath his irresponsible behavior and "defensive flippancy" was an appreciation of what was at stake. Colgan's Skinner is a grimy, hungry, duly exaggerated elf. Although the debate seems framed by the two young men, the real stakes are expressed through the older woman, Lily Doherty (Sorcha Cusack), who lives with "the Captain" and her brood of eleven in two squalid rooms lacking running water (except "down the walls"). Cusack conveys the affecting humor that embodies her essential state of denial. Together they are the mind, heart and soul, respectively, of the play.
Friel has not written a straightforward three-hander, however. Freedom begins where it ends, with three dead bodies across the apron on the stage. Employing freeze-frame cross-cuts we would still call trendy, he sets the play's context through scenes from the subsequent official inquiry, the solemn requiem mass for the three and a suitably egg-headed lecture by an American sociologist. But these should be accents not action. Together with lots of additional scene-setting (atmospheric noise, a giant screen onto which slides depicting the march and melee are projected and so on), the three fine central performances are given a lot -- too much -- to compete with. The judge (Ian Price), in particular, is permitted to overstep his bounds, playing to the audience and almost cartoonishly underscoring the obvious irony in what he says. The cumulative effect is to reduce the immediacy of the play's core and lessen its potency.
This has always been a difficult play for the Irish to perform because of the open wounds with which it tampers. But if Friel could write it, others should be able to stage it. Perhaps it is Chekhov's words that Conall Morrison needs to take to heart: "Let the things that happen on the stage be just as complex and just as simple as they are in life."
Two final notes. The first has to do with accents. Background material suggests that in transporting this production across the Atlantic, the heavy accents of Northern Ireland were modulated. So it seems, and to positive effect for the Yankee ear. There are times, however, when the actors seem to be struggling a bit with their own tongue, but a reasonable compromise nonetheless. Second, a bit of Irish theatrical trivia: When the Abbey Theatre did the world premiere of Freedom, Skinner was portrayed by Eamon Morrissey, who portrays Trigorin in the current Uncle Vanya (reviewed above); John Kavanaugh, who plays the doctor (Astrov) in Vanya, was the judge; and Niall O'Brien, portraying the pathologist Professor Cuppley now, was a mere soldier.
Aristocrats does indeed bring us full circle to Chekhov. We are in the decaying "big house" of the family O'Donnell, a dynasty of justices, wealthy and Irish Catholic,""; who've run out of steam. Son-in-law Eamon (Frank McCusker), a ""peasant" boy -- his grandmother was a maid for the O'Donnell's -- describes it tongue-in-cheek but accurately:
The gripping saga of a family that lived its life in total isolation in a gaunt Georgian house on top of a hill in the remote Donegal village of Ballybeg; a family without passion, without loyalty, without commitments; ...ignored by its Protestant counterparts, isolated from the mere Irish, existing only in its own concept of itself, brushing against reality occasionally by its cultivation of artists; but tough -- oh, yes, tough, resilient, tenacious; and with one enormous talent for -- no, a greed for survival.... The family is reunited for the summer wedding of the depressed piano-playing daughter Claire (Alison McKenna). She lives at Ballybeg Hall with her sister Judith (Catherine Byrne), the only O'Donnell for whom the word "efficient" has any application, the father and patriarch of the clan, Justice O'Donnell (Peter Dix), who is now senile and infirm and their uncle George (Eamon Kelly) who never speaks. (Having stopped his alcoholic ways, we are told, George concluded if he couldn't ask for a drink, there was nothing worth saying.) Her other siblings (except Anna (voice of Anita Reeves), who is in a religious order in Africa) have returned to Ballybeg Hall for the wedding.: Alice (Donna Dent), alcoholic wife of Eamon who now lives in London, and Casimir (Mark Lambert), an eccentric misfit with an active imagination when it comes to facts (thoroughly appropriate for one born on April Fool's Day) who now lives in Hamburg, supposedly with a wife named Helga and her three sons. Also present -- as is Friel's wont --is an American professor studying rich Irish Catholics (William Roberts) as well as the local jack-of-all-trades, Willie Diver (Joe Gallagher).
As in Uncle Vanya, precious little of consequence happens. Friel intends a family portrait, and succeeds in painting a vivid, warm one in spite of a pervasive sense of sadness. These characters are intended to depict a certain way of life, but will resonate for many people who are neither wealthy, nor Irish nor Catholic.
Ben Barnes's production seems to follow the wrong cues. Like the O'Donnell's, it seems to have run out of steam. Despite several notable performances (Mark Lambert's Casimir is an idiosyncratic pleasure to watch most of the time, Donna Dent's Alice is as rough and fragile as a cracking piece of glass and Catherine Byrne's Judith is an understated gem), the essential charm that is the "glue" of this play is simply missing: there is a slightly cynical, matter-of-fact tone to the presentation that would be better left to the audience's imagination.
Also in absentia is any sense of intimacy: a casualty, no doubt, of the vast space of the Laguardia Drama Theater for which neither the director nor the set designer was able to compensate. One of the difficulties with extremely short runs by touring companies is that there is no time to work through these problems. The architecture of the space here seemingly forced the interior scenes to the stage area behind the thrust -- putting most of the audience at a distance that would be out in the lobby of most off-Broadway houses.
All things considered, with its plusses and minuses, this festival in celebration of Brian Friel accomplishes precisely what it set out to do. It provides newcomers to his work with an excellent cross-section of his oeuvre, prompts established fans to recollect and perhaps even rethink his great plays like Phladelphia, Here I Come!, Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations, and whets the appetite for Friel's latest effort, Give Me Your Answer, Do!, which will be produced this fall at the Roundabout. Bring it on, Brian
LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's 1997 review of Uncle Vanya
©Copyright July 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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