Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Charlotte Moore

Review | The Burial At Thebes | By Seamus Heaney | From Sophocles’ Antigone | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

… don’t bother …

Sophocles’ Antigone is among the greatest plays ever written, Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize winning poet, and Irish Repertory Theatre produces wonderful shows with outstanding actors.  How then did The Burial At Thebes turn out to be a  poor derivative of Antigone, with amateurish acting?

Since their usual theater is under renovation, Irish Rep produced this elsewhere but I don’t see that would explain this disappointing production.

The basic story line is here:  After the death of Oedipus, Creon has become King in ancient Thebes and Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are living there. Oedipus’ son, Polynices, leads a futile attempt to overthrow King Creon and take over the city but Oedipus’ other son, Eteocles, fights to defend Creon and Thebes. The two brothers meet in battle and slay one another.   Eteocles, receives a hero’s burial but Creon decrees that the traitor, Polynices, shall receive no burial but be left exposed, carrion for the birds and dogs.  As when Achilles refused Hector burial in the Iliad, this is an ultimate indignity, a violation of Greek burial practices and a religious desecration.

Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, inspired by love for her brother and profound religious principle buries Polynices.  In Sophocles, she covers him with “handfuls of dry dust” and pours libations which suffice symbolically, but Heaney has the poor girl do some serious — though hard to visualize — digging.   Creon vows to execute Antigone for her insubordination.

In a breathtaking confrontation, Sophocles shows Creon arguing for the primacy of laws made by men – here his own arbitrary decrees – and the virtue of obedience for the valuable purpose of keeping order in cities.  Antigone, admitting she disobeyed his laws, claims she acted rightly according to higher, divine, eternal laws.  It’s a great dramatic argument but no one is persuaded, and the play marches on toward its excess-driven tragic conclusion.

Although the characters and their motivations are filled with ambiguities, the argument between Antigone and Creon has been interpreted as a confrontation between freedom and tyranny.  Antigone is often seen as a principled, inspirational beacon of liberation facing down a dictator.  This was understood tacitly, for example, when Jean Anouilh produced his adaptation of Antigone in Paris during World War, during the Nazi occupation of France (George Steiner takes up Anouilh’s play and other variations on the theme in his book, Antigones).  Heaney, here, relates the Antigone-Creon conflict to America’s entry into the Iraq war.  This is so forced it makes one impatient:  whatever one’s opinion of George Bush or the war in Iraq, there’s no analogy.

While several of the actors have impressive resumes, the overall sense of the acting is amateurish.  Actors whom I’ve seen do outstanding work in other plays, including at Irish Rep, are insufficient here, and the accents are all over the place.  Rod Brogan rises above the general level and is exciting as the Messenger who has the sorry task of bearing bad news.

The poetry is strongest in some lyrical passages where Heaney draws directly on Sophocles’ imagery but elsewhere it seems to lack imagination.  I heard the cliché “beyond the pale” used three times in referring to arrogant action, which felt like poetic fatigue.  Heaney truncates important aspects of Antigone, including the famous choral “ode to man,” as it’s often called, and draws others out too long.

The best thing that Heaney did here was to not call this play Antigone.   Still, I worry that people will see this and think they’ve seen Antigone.  They haven’t.

The Burial At Thebes plays at the DR2 Theatre near Manhattan’s Union Square through March 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

Time:  September, 1922 – the height of the Irish Civil War
Place:  The two-room tenement apartment of the Boyle family in Dublin

What an abundant play unfolds, perfectly acted and beautifully produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre!

Only one in the Boyle family is earning a living, Juno, the mother.  Daughter Mary’s out on strike.  Son Johnny is severely wounded in fighting for Irish independence and half-crazed fearing retribution for betraying an Irish Republican Army comrad who lived in this same building.  And the father, “Captain” Jack, Juno’s preening paycock of a husband, is a hard drinking former merchant seaman, who runs off to the pub with his drinking “butty” Joxer even when a job comes walking in the door.

So money’s very short, when an English solicitor, Mr. Bentham, arrives with the news that Jack is about to receive a substantial inheritance.  Anticipating the windfall, the Boyles purchase handsome new furniture on credit.  And — icing on the cake — the handsome and professional Mr. Bentham is in love with beautiful Mary — or so it seems.  The Boyle’s stand to rise upward in the world on all counts.  It’s not giving too much away to say that things don’t work out that way.

In an idyllic interlude, Mary and a neighbor Maisie Madigan sing at the celebratory party at the Boyle’s apartment, a moment of joy, though with a portent:  a funeral is underway at the same time for the IRA comrade Johnny betrayed.  Life and death cling to one another in this play like two lovers dancing.

Among this outstanding cast, J. Smith-Cameron is strong yet tender as Juno, the mother who keeps things going at a time “the centre cannot hold,” as W. B. Yeats wrote in The Second Coming (Yeats was Juno and the Paycock’s original producer in 1924 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin).  O’Casey’s language is in itself highly poetic and as Jack Boyle, Ciaran O’Reilly is particularly effective in bringing out the poetry O’Casey finds in the natural speach in the Irish dialect.

Mary Mallen as the young Mary is principled, warmly feminine, and in love with plenty of good reasons, which don’t always take you where you want to go. Terry Donnelly is a delightfully vibrant life-of-the-party as the neighbor Maisie Madigan.  And an absolute favorite — simply fascinating to watch — is John Keating as Joxer Daly, Jack Boyle’s go-along-with-the-flow and duplicitous drinking partner.  In a play of strong characterizations, his goes farthest beyond type into unforgettable and irresistible idiosyncracy.

Populated by richly drawn characters, Juno and the Paycock moves at a rollicking and yet lifelike pace between loyalty and betrayal, rapture and despair, lofty idealism and down-to-earth reality.  I’m eager to see the other plays of O’Casey’s: Dublin Trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, and The Plough and the Stars, but “meanwhile” I’m grateful to Irish Repertory Theatre for this exciting and fulfilling production.

Juno and the Paycock  plays at Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea through December 29th, 2013. Extended through January 26, 2013.

Review | Donnybrook! The Musical of the Movie The Quiet Man | Music and Lyrics by Johnny Burke | Book by Robert E. McEnroe | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Based on The Quiet Man, Short Story by Maurice Walsh | Irish Repertory Theatre

The world doesn’t need this musical.  Set in a fictional Irish village, Innisfree, in the 1920’s, it’s about the “cute Irish,” and their quaint ways including the great fun of settling conflicts with a brutal, free-for-all fight — a “donnybrook.”

The central idea, from Maurice Walsh’s 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story, is interesting — an Irish-American boxer, having killed a man and determined never to fight again, returns to his Irish village where he’s forced into a fight mandated by custom (the “donnybrook”) in order to uphold the honor of his village bride.

Sean, arriving in town, immediately falls in love with the feisty Mary Kate who immediately falls in love with him.  But Sean angers her brother, Will, by topping his bid for some land, so Will tries to prevent the marriage and –when it does take place through some chicanery — withholds Ellen’s dowry.  Sean doesn’t care about the money but — Irish custom — the dowry is bottom line, because it represents her honor.  When Sean refuses to fight Will for the withheld dowry, Mary Kate, with an implausible lack of interest in her beloved’s state of mind about fighting, resorts to sexual blackmail, refusing to consummate the marriage.  Through the machinations of a subplot things work out but not before there’s a — yes! — donnybrook, where Sean manages not to kill anybody including his wife’s brother — that would have been a problem — but the outcome is never in doubt, and we’re not really worried about this or anything in this show, in which the stereotype characters don’t engage ones concern.

The cast doesn’t have much to work with in these trite characters, although there are flashes of dramatic tension in James Barbour ‘s performance as the American boxer, particularly when he’s singing, but the show seems too small for him.

The songs and music, some traditional and others written for the show, are largely predictable although a few, such as “But Beautiful,” have more character and are familiar — the musical had a short run on Broadway in 1961.  The song “The Loveable Irish,” with its refrain “I hate the Irish,” is offensive;  Sean lists everything he finds wrong with the Irish until, at the end, he sings “but I’m Irish, too” as if that makes it OK to pour out so many negative stereotypes on a group of people, but it doesn’t.

Donnybrook! plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through March 31. Extended through April 28th

Review | Aristocrats by Brian Friel | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

… family reunions …

Aristocrats, about a far flung family of O’Donnells converging on the crumbling family mansion in Northern Ireland for a wedding, is wordy and pedestrian — with the exception of one outstanding characterization.

Claire, once a promising pianist, is finally getting married to a much older local commoner with children to raise.  Not surprisingly, she’s depressed, and her alcoholic sister Alice who’s come up from London is not likely to cheer her up.  Their brother Casimir has flow in from Germany, leaving behind a fictitious wife and children — invented cover-ups for his homosexuality and low-level job.

Judith, the third sister, is trapped in the drudgery of tending to the decaying mansion and those who’ve stayed home, Claire, and a sick father whom we know through his domineering and delusional voice booming on the intercom from upstairs, helping us understand why the mother, an actress, committed suicide to escape.  An elderly uncle who wanders around with a passive/aggressive silence adds nothing to the dramatic action, although he’s intended to be part of an unconvincing renewal at the end.

As in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with its similar theme, the aristocrats are has-beens and all vitality is with the commoners, Eamon who married Alice (though he loved Judith, but he’s making a reasonable best of it), and the erstwhile chauffeur, now a successful business man, Willie Driver, who would marry Judith but is reluctant to take on her illegitimate child sent by the father to the orphanage.

Also on hand is an American taking notes on the O’Donnells as a case study in Irish Catholic aristocracy;  maybe he was intended as a scientific-minded foil to a more poetic Irish spirit but this is never developed:  with the uncle, that makes two extraneous characters.

The set, combining a built set, tangible chairs and tables, etc., and photography conveys the former grandeur and current struggles of the aristocrats at home.  The directing is slow-paced.  The acting is on a professional high level … BUT …

If you’re looking for a reason to see this play, John Keating’s evasions as Casimir, the failed law student, are witty, touching, and brilliantly timed.  He has the gift of being hilarious as a character while always, totally, remaining in character.  In an Iceman Cometh moment when his pipe dream is shattered, one sees fully the desperate loss and almost as fast the recovery of the fantasy that allows him to live.  This is a wonderful tour de force of characterization.

It seems natural that in an era of centrifugal spread of families, the theme of distant family members honing in on the ancestral home for a rite of passage has become popular.  It’s a promising motif for expansive studies of character and for revealing the way truths from the past remain active in the present.  Sometimes it works that way, as in Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, or the current film Rachel Getting Married, but it can also verge on soap opera as in Horton Foote’s Dividing the Inheritance (reviewed below).  In Aristocrats, the revelations are immediately understood or are too familiar.

Aristocrats plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in East Chelsea, NYC, through March 8.

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