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A CurtainUp Review
By Kate Shea Kennon
The Shaughraun (pronounced shok-run and meaning scoundrel or rascal) is an important piece of theater history since it represents a change in dramatic style and was part of a body of work which had a profound effect on George Bernard Shaw and John Synge. Though Shaw was fond of criticizing Boucicault's crowd-pleasing melodramas, he actually owed a great deal to Boucicault's innovations in characterization which was especially apparent in his lone Irish play, John Bull's Other Island. The narrative revolves around a dispossessed Irish family; the brother is in prison and his sister and fiancee live in poverty. A vaudevillian villain, in disguise as a family friend, has robbed the family of their estate and now attempts to thwart the return of the master of the house and take the bride for his own.
Conn, the Shaughraun, is played with athletic charm by Chris Keveny. Ross DeGraw as the evil Corry Kinchela has great fun with his role and easily handles the many asides needed to keep the audience abreast to his wicked plans. Another actor who seems to enjoy his monstrous character is Glenn Peters as Harvey Duff, informant and sidekick. These characters are broadly drawn, yet Boucicault is more subtle than his toothless widows and mustache swirling villains would at first lead us to believe. Playing against cliche, one of its heros is a Captain in the Queen's army. Captain Molineux (Kris Kling) is a precursor to Brian Friel's Lieutenant Yolland in Translations. He is a young British soldier who falls in love with an Irish girl and symbolically with the unhappy island itself. The irony here is that Molineux as a name seems more Gallic than Gaelic. Those remembering their Irish history will think of a time when Ireland looked to France to save it from England. France disappointed. Will Molineux disappoint Claire now?
The play may belong at heart to the Shaughraun ("the soul of every fair, the life of every funeral, the first fiddle at all weddings and patterns"), yet every time the young soldier comes on stage, with his one eye on decorum and the other on Claire Fflolliott (Mia Perry), comic energy rises. Captain Molineux may indeed be "not a man but a trophy"", but he does have the advantage of having some of the evening's best dialogue. He is infatuated despite his rank. She is infatuated despite her patriotism. At odds with each other and themselves, the Captain and Claire's dialogue is the classic humor of misunderstanding; for example this interchange when Claire needs to light a beacon fire to aid in the escape of her wrongly convicted brother and must cajole the clueless captain into aiding her.
Molineux; " I have said or done something to offend you. Tell me what it is. It will afford me much pleasure to plead for pardon for what I have done."
Claire: "You want to know what ails me?"
Claire: "Do you see that tar-barrel?"
Molineux: "Good gracious! What has a tar-barrel have to do with my offense?"
Claire: "Nothing but it has everything to do with mine."
Molineux: (Aside, after a pause) "I wonder if there is madness in the family?"
Claire: "Do you see that tar barrel?"
Molineux: "I see something like a tar barrel in that pile of brushwood."
Claire: "Will you oblige me with a match?"
Molineux: "Certainly. (Aside) There's no doubt about it. So lovely, and yet so afflicted! I feel even more tenderly towards her than I did!"
Claire: "If I were to ask you to light that bonfire, would you do it?"
Molineux: "With pleasure. (Aside) It is the moon that affects her. I wish I had an umbrella."
Mr. Kling makes great use of the inherent comedy of confusion. Captain Molineux is all uniform and quiet emotional upheaval. His direct appeals to the audience do not break from character but add to it. These asides, so much part of the melodrama with a wink and sometimes a symbolic twirling of the mustache, are mocked from a safe distance from 21st century seats, but they can be irresistible. Think of John Cusack in High Fidelity. Who can resist his constant direct appeal to his audience?
Ultimately, The Shaughraun is a comic melodrama with more comedy than drama, but that doesn't mean that Boucicault didn't have some serious issues hiding among the pratfalls. Ireland's Home Rule Movement was organized the same year as the play made its appearance. The charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell, a bit of a Shaughraun himself, was a key force behind the Home Rule movement. It is no small matter that Robert Ffolliott (Tim Seib) has been imprisoned for being a Fenian, a rebel against British imperialism in Ireland. His being sent to Australia for plotting against England underscores the new nationalism in Ireland at this time. Mrs. O'Kelly (Clodagh Bowyer), Conn's widowed mother, has an unfortunate physical appearance in comic contrast to the beauty of the young girls around her, but her shawl made of rags reminds of the poverty of rural Ireland. The play, produced in 1874, is only one generation removed from the millions that died in the famine of 1847-48. The severe economic depression in Ireland throughout the 19th century is illustrated by the loss of land and house. None of these issues come across as sermon but as comedy as the audience laughs over the Captain's bewilderment over the emotional impact of 5 golden pounds on Mrs. O' Kelly's demeanor.
The many scene changes and relatively large cast present difficulties for the small theatre company which are ably dealt with by director Peter Dobbins. The cast is enthusiastic and willing to chew up the scenery as the genre demands. Laura Bozzone as Moya, the Shaughraun's love interest. is a standout and Joe Sullivan as Father Dolan effectively defies the usual stage Irish concept.
As I write this, the Golden Globes ceremony is disguised as a press conference. The writers on strike should be putting aside a placard in honor of Dion Boucicault. His most influential role in theater today is neither as playwright nor actor, but as an ambitious advocate for authors' rights. Tired of receiving initial fixed payment for his successful plays as was customary at the time, Boucicault helped a copyright law through Congress that enabled writers to derive percentage revenue from the profits of their plays. It changed the economics of the theater; writing became a much more profitable career. Even G. B. Shaw couldn't find fault with that.
For a review of a recent London production go here.
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