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A CurtainUp Review
The Hostage

This is nineteen-sixty, and the days of the heroes are over this forty years past. Long over, finished and done with. The IRA and the War of Independence are as dead as the Charleston. -- Pat

Anto Nolan (Photo: Carol Rosegg )
Pat (Anto Nolan), Brendan Behan's alter ego in this 1958 play may irreverently declare the Civil War's heroism "dead as the Charleston" but the dark cloud of politics and death overhangs the singing, jig dancing and carousing at the seedy Dublin brothel he now manages. That brothel is Behan's sly symbol for 1950s Ireland, as the bawdville antics and Irish songs are a futile madcap attempt to keep violent death at bay.

The singing and dancing elements were added to the original story during its translation from Gaelic into English. An amiable collaboration between Behan and Joan Littlewood, this added music and dancing as an entertaining and bizarre counterpoint to the grim theme of young lives violently ended by political conflict -- in this case an IRA group captures an innocent young British soldier, determined to kill him if the British go through with the hanging of an eighteen-year-old IRA man.

Director Charlotte Moore's production has a wonderful Brechtian sensibility. Though true to the tragic plot, the musical and improvisational elements (e.g. actors rushing up the aisle and tossing pamphlets to the audience) are the dominant flavor. It's a flavor that shows off the playwright's irreverent humor to best advantage, especially so as served up by the first-rate, mostly Irish cast, most of whom intermittently and zestfully burst into song.

Since James Joyce's The Dead (Our Review) was labeled a musical, so The Hostage could fit that category as well even though both would be more accurately described as plays with music. At any rate, the crucial role of music is immediately established with an opening song by the piano player (Mark Hartman), prominently positioned at the foot of the stage, and a singer (Ciarán Sheehan who, besides having a beautiful voice, also accompanies Hartman on several instruments). One by one the assorted whorehouse denizens begin to roam all over Eugene Lee's appropriately seedy set which encompasses a sitting area, a rear bedroom and curtained-off bathroom, and a staircase leading to the unseen rooms where the prostitutes take their clients.

Holding center stage are the do-nothing talkers Pat and his mistress Meg (Terry Donnelly), both full of enjoyable Irish-ness, though Donnelly tends to be a tad shrill. Making regular appearances, is Monsewer (James A. Stephens), Pat's commander during the 1916 Easter Rebellion and, as the owner of the brothel, still his boss. Stephens is suitably daffy as the Oxford educated, kilted bagpiper with a decidedly skewered sense of reality. It is Monsewer's "deal" to let the IRA hold the English hostage in his establishment that brings the first hints of tragedy which will becloud the hedonistic gaiety.

The first act rambles along rather too long and too aimlessly with nothing much happening until the young hostage (Erik Singer) is brought in blindfolded. Ms. Moore's otherwise intelligent direction would have benefited from some judicious editing. This is underscored by the shorter and more focused, fly-by concluding act. Erik Singer and Derdriu Ring as Teresa, the young convent graduate with whom he falls in love, are fine in the play's only serious roles, but the evening's highlights are provided by the more comic parts: Mr. Mulleady (Ciaran O'Reilly), a civil servant, and Miss Gilchrist (Elizabeth Whyte), a social worker. Miss Gilchrist's religious fervor hides tendencies as lewd as those flaunted by the over-the-top male prostitute Rio Rita (Barry McNabb) and his black boyfriend Princess Grace (Steven X. Ward). If this were a conventional musical, the scene in which Rio Rita ad Princess Grace, joined by Mulleady, sing "we're queer because we're here; we're here because we're queer" to the tune of "Auld Lang Signe" would unquestionably be the evening's comic show stopper.

For all the fun and games, the play ends with a big emotional as well as actual bang. The English soldier faces us bathed in light (terrific work by lighting designer Gregory Cohen) and sings "the bells ring a ding a ling a ling, but not for me." When the ensemble to his rear, their backs to the audience, turns and joins him, it is a scene we won't soon forget.

The concurrent run of The Hostage and Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock gives New York theater goers a rare opportunity to see two finely acted revivals. As The Hostage illustrates the depressing persistence of the violence and destruction of the Irish civil strife that dates back to early in the Twentieth Century, so both plays are depressingly up-to-date in terms of the state of the world in the Twenty-first Century. Neither is a slavishly reverential take on a well known work. A viewing of one will enhance the enjoyment and understanding of the other. It doesn't matter which you see first, but in any order, both plays add up to a rare double treat.

CurtainUp's review of Juno and the Paycock
CurtainUp's report on the Dublin International Theatre Festival 2000

by Brendan Behan
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Terry Donnelly, Mark Hartman, Jacqueline Kealy, John Martin McConnell, Barry McNabb, Fidelma Murphy, Anto Nolan, John O'Callaghan, Denis O'Neill, Ciaran O'Reilly, Derdriu Ring, Ciaran Sheehan, Erik Singer, James A. Stephens, Steven Xavier Ward, Elizabeth Whyte
Set Design: Eugene Lee and N. Joseph DeTullio
Lighting Design: Gregory Cohen
Costume Design: Linda Fisher
Musical Direction:
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. (6th/7th Avs) 727-2737
10/20/2000-12/10/2000; opening 10/29 /2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/27 performance

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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