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A CurtainUp Review
The Plough and the Stars
The Irish Repertory has dedicated its 2019 season to Sean O'Casey and fittingly presents The Plough and the Stars as the capstone. Here are links to works staged earlier: Shadow of a Gunman & Juno and the Paycock
Set against the rebellion of Easter 1916, The Plough and the Stars is perhaps O'Casey's most controversial drama. It depicts tenement characters fighting to keep their lives intact despite the war's destruction. And beneath its suface story, it satirized the heroism of some Irish patriots and the love of war and bloodshed.
The Plough and the Stars holds a special significance for the Irish Rep, as it was the inaugural production of the company in 1988 and restaged there in 1997. The current production, directed by Charlotte Moore, has much going for it. Its chief aces (as was the case in Shadow and Juno) are its realistic set design and the superb acting ensemble.
First, the scenery. Charlie Corcoran has evoked the play's multiple settings with a number of flats and a pub on a rotating stage. Each flat is roomy but small enough that it builds the necessary intimacy among its characters. And the pub in Act 2 is so convincing that you can almost smell the "glass o' malts" that the Bartender (Harry Smith) serves up to his Dubliners.
When the lights go up, we see the front and back drawing rooms of the Clitheroes' home, with its Georgian architecture a little down-at-heel. There's a copy of The Angelus on the back wall and a calendar on the adjacent wall displaying a picture of The Sleeping Venus. The former picture nods to the play's religious overtones and the latter represents the world that extends beyond provincial Dublin.
Corcoran retains the mood and atmosphere throughout. In Act 2, there's the aforementioned pub that brings us closer to the frenzy of the rebellion as we overhear an unknown speaker, viewed in silhouette through a sunken window, preaching his political propaganda. We return to the Clitheroe's home in Act 3 and move on to Bessie Burgess suffocatingly small living room in Act 4.
Also winning the day is in the casting of the right actors in the right parts. Moore has assembled a cast of able American and Irish actors who persuasively perform the working class characters, getting their physical mannerisms and accents down just right. Given that the focus is always on community over any individual, it is crucial that each performer captures the subtle idiosyncracies of the character portrayed.
Maryann Plunkett as Bessie Burgess projects both the right physical sturdiness and emotional intensity of a tenement woman who gives as good as she gets. Michael Mellamphy as Fluther Good is plausible as the hard drinking but helpful fellow who would give you the shirt off his back.
Clare O'Malley and Adam Petherbridge, in the roles of newly-weds Nora Clitheroe and Jack Clitheroe, exude the right stage chemistry and the anguish of a couple torn apart by the Easter Uprising of 1916. Irish Rep company member John Keating inhabits Captain Brennan with the patriotic fervor of a man who's a proud officer in the Irish Citizen Army. And Meg Hennessy as the invalid Mollser is aptly pitiable.
What is particularly satisfying about this production is how it complements the Irish Rep's two earlier O'Casey productions. Indeed, it, invites one to see O'Casey's work in a broader and deeper light. And, for those theatergoers who went to the earlier O'Casey productions, it allows them to see many of the same actors in different parts.
Plunkett, for example, was cast as the soulful Juno in Juno and the Paycock and now insinuates herself into the skin of the termagant Bessie Burgess. Michael Mellamphy, who has performed in all three productions, played the ragged peddler Seumas Shields in Shadow of a Gunman, various parts in Juno and the Paycock, and now is the Falstaffian Fluther Good. And John Keating, who also has performed in each part of the trilogy, morphs from the alcoholic Protestant Orangeman Mr. Grigson in Shadow of a Gunman, to the work-shirking Joxer Daly in Juno and the Paycock, to the proud Captain Brennan in The Plough and the Stars.
O'Casey would go on to write other plays after The Plough and the Stars but not one of them would ever quite capture the public's imagination like this 1926 tragicomedy that immortalized the common man in war.
O'Casey once wrote: "I'm just a wandering minstrel singing an odd song at all the cross-roads, a song in the form of a play . . . . " In Moore's new staging of The Plough and the Stars, one can truly listen to the bittersweet music in his drama and reflect on the real sacrifices of people who are never mentioned in the pages of history books.
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The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Úna Clancy as Mrs. Gogan, Terry Donnelly as Woman from Rathmines, Rory Duffy as Ensemble, Meg Hennessy as Mollser, John Keating as Capt. Brennan, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Peter Flynn, Ed Malone as Lieut. Langon, Michael Mellamphy as Fluther Good, Clare O'Malley as Nora Clitheroe, Adam Petherbridge as Jack Clitheroe, Maryann Plunkett as Bessie Burgess, James Russell as The Young Covey, Harry Smith as Bartender/Sgt. Tinley, and Sarah Street as Rosie Redmond.
Sets: Charlie Corcoran
Costumes: Linda Fisher
Lighting: Michael Gottlieb
Sound: Ryan Rumery
Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 West 22nd Street, Chelsea neighborhood. Tickets: start at $45. Phone 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org.
From 4/20/19; opening 4/30/19; closing 6/22/19.
Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 4/28/19.
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