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Touch of the Poet

Leave it to the wonderful Irish Repertory Theatre to create a virtual production that feels as close to a real, full-bodied theater experience as anything available online.

The company's revival of A Touch of the Poet by Eugene O'Neil was almost ready to have its live premiere at the Rep's main stage when the pandemic struck. So, it looked as if there would be no next phase ro the four weeks of rehearsals, costumes made for the 10-member cast and for the scenery — at least not until life went back to a semblance of normalcy.

But this company hasn't become one of New York's cultural gems without meeting challenges. So, instead of letting the already fitted costumes and scenic set-ups just sit there, Ciarán O'Reilly, the Rep's co-founder and the play's director, decided to move forward with it virtually.

By taking advantage of how close the Rep's latest take on an O'Neill play was to being ready to open, A Touch of the Poet is one of the best virtually produced shows I've seen. I shut down my laptop on Thursday night — the first of the scheduled performances — on what felt like a thoroughly satisfying evening.

O'Reilly and his terrific team managed to make what viewers see look as if all the actors were actually together on stage instead of in their homes. Each was sent costumes (Alejo Vietti), also the props and wide screen in front of which the play unfolds (Charlie Corcoran). Each actor's cellphone-filmed performance was then edited by video editor Sarah Nichols to be shown as one unit. I'm not enough of a techie to tell you more than that it all works amazingly well. It's not better than the real thing or without an occasional clunky moment; but that screen in back of the actors creates a nicely detailed setting enabling the play to unfold as if realistically staged. It also enables the actors to come and go as needed.

As for the play itself, it was the first and only finished play of O'Neill's planned multi-play cycle, A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossed. The plan was for the plays to follow an immigrant family's journey through decades of American history. O'Neill did almost complete its sequel , More Stately Mansions. While Poet. . . did have four productions, Mansions. . . was done just once by Ivo Von Hove who gave it the director-auteur treatment for which he's known — my review. (Note: Actually, as my colleague Charles Wright reminded me, the sequel had more of a life before Van Hove's 2007 take. In 1962, with Carlotta Monterey O'Neill's blessing, the play,which was with O'Neill's papers at Yale, was performed at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre. It also had a Broadway production in 1967 that co-starred Ingrid Bergman and Colleen Dewhurst).

Even O'Neill's most ardent fans wouldn't consider Poet. . . on a par with the Nobel prize winning playwright's more lauded and better known works like Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. However, great or not, O'Neill never failed to create characters that were a gift to the actors playing them. And every member of the current production knows how to make the most of that gift, even within this challenging safely distanced format.

In keeping with the cycle's plan, the Melody family's personal drama plays out on the larger canvas of a controversial presidential election. This one is in 1828 and for Andrew Jackson. This time frame and that its main character, Cornelius "Con" Melody, is an excessively self-deluded braggart who's prone to cruel and erratic behavior is bound to prompt comparisons.

Even without the timely aspects we all look for these days in any production of a play written long ago, this smartly put together and splendidly performed version lifts A Touch of a Poet several notches closer to the top of the O'Neill canon.

Though some of the minor characters add some comic relief, the Melody saga is a tragedy of a toxic marital and parent-child relationshiship. Alcohol and a long history of self-destructive actions make it unlikely that the self-important Cornelius Melody (Robert Cuccioli) will banish his darker, truth- defying angels by play's end.

The scenario of the four acts plays out in a single day during which the troubled psyche of Cornelius is on full display. He reveals himself as a pompous drunkard who who feels that his aristocratic heritage and heroism as an officer in the the Napoleonic War should have made his move from Ireland to America should have landed him in a better situation — not as the proprietor of a failing tavern. Thus he hods on to his pride in an unsubstantiated past. His disdain also applies to his less highborn wife Nora (Kate Forbes). Cuccioli potently segues between abusive outbursts and self-hating apologies, as well as brief moments of genuine self-awareness (effectively realized with a scene of him in front of a wall mirror at the end of each act).

Kate Forbes is heartbreaking as the wife who loves her Con despite years of his womanizing. She cooks his meals and since he stubbornly holds on to an old mare — his last possession from better days — it's she who begs for the credit needed to keep the tavern going.

The plot crisis revolves around the romance between Sara ( Belle Aykroyd), the couple's daugter and a never seen rich, educated young man recovering from an unspecified illness in a nearby cabin. Sara, like her mother, and unlike her father, actuallly works. As the tavern's waitress she has come to see through the man's pretensions and lets him know it by often speaking in an Irish brogue to remind him of his true origins.

Aykroid captures the old-fasihoned and new woman trapped inside the rebellious Sara. But she's born more than a century too soon to escape the life she hates by becoming an independent woman. Instead, she sees a chance for a better life by marrying Simon (the never seen young man she's been nursing). It's her father's drunken meddling in that love affair which results in a disastrous meeting with Simon's mother, Deborah (Mary McCann). This is followed by an even more foolhardy attempt to defend his and Sara's honor in an act of violence that not only kills that old mare but his claims to non-existing glory days forever.

Authentic as the buzz of his drunken buddies in the tavern's bar during the final scenes in the tavern's kitchen is, I found it distracting. Yet this is a minor complaint in a generally absorbing two and a half hours (plus that fifteen minute intermission without the usual bathroom lines in a theater).

l The company has provided a number of options to enrich the viewer's experience; for example a digital playbill and a chance to sign on to make chat comments and thus give a sense of connection with other people at the viewer's performance.

Like the Rep's previous virtual offerings, access is again free but reservations are required. For details check out the PRODUCTION NOTES.

For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to other plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, check out his chapter in our Playwrights Album.

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A Touch of the Poet by Eugene O'Neil[
A Performance On Screen
Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly
Cast: Belle Aykroyd as Sara Melody, Ciaran Byrne as Dan Roche, Robert Cuccioli as Cornelius “Con” Melody, Kate Forbes as Nora Melody, Mary McCann as Deborah, Andy Murray as Cregan, David O’Hara as Paddy O’Dowd, Tim Ruddy as Mickey Maloy, David Sitler as Patch Riley, John C. Vennema as Nicholas Gadsby.
Set Design by Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design by Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design by Michael Gottlieb
Sound Design by M. Florian Staab
Original Music by Ryan Rumery
Properties by Sven Henry Nelson
Hair and Wig Design by Robert Charles Vallance
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, 1 intermission
Available for viewing free (with requested $25 donation)
Performance shedule: Tuesday, October 27 at 7pm
Wednesday, October 28 at 3pm & 8pm
Thursday, October 29 at 7pm*
Friday, October 30 at 8pm
Saturday, October 31 at 3pm* & 8pm
Sunday, November 1 at 3pm
*Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances are open captioned.
Play's Runing Tme: 2 hours and 40 minutes, ncluding a 15-minute intermission.

Review:at ©Copyright 2020, Elyse Sommer.
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