Monday, June 3, 2013

When Irish Eyes Are Crying

For as long as I can remember, I've had a peculiar problem relating to works by Irish playwrights. While I had little trouble understanding plays by Richard Brinsley Sheridan or Oscar Wilde, sometimes I just couldn't pierce through cultural barriers built upon heavy (almost unintelligible) Irish accents, unfathomable depths of depression, or the kind of spiteful behavior and domestic violence induced by chronic alcoholism.

From my earliest experiences -- The Hostage (by Brendan Behan) and Philadelphia, Here I Come! (by Brian Friel) -- to Oh, What A Lovely War! (by Joan Littlewood) and Da (by Hugh Leonard), I've often felt as if I were trying to read poetry written in an incomprehensible alien alphabet (Cyrillic?  Thai script? Arabic?). It's rare for me to leave a theatre before the final curtain, but in 2004 I left the Post Street Theatre during the intermission of Frank McCourt's play, A Couple of Blaguards.

In recent years, my exposure to plays by Conor McPherson (Shining CityThe Seafarer) left me wondering if part of my problem was due to early impressions of how the Irish had been depicted in musical terms. Listening to tenor John McCormack's recording of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (first published in 1912), one might never imagine that a deadly potato famine had forced so many Irish families to leave their homes and seek a better life in America.

The musical romanticization of Irish culture reached a peak in 1947's Finian's Rainbow (music by Burton Lane with lyrics by E. Y. "Yip" Harburg). In the following two clips you can see Fred Astaire and Petula Clark singing "Look to the Rainbow" in the 1968 film adaptation that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and Kate Baldwin singing "How Are Things In Glocca Morra" from the 2009 Broadway revival.

In 1994, the overnight success of Riverdance in the Eurovision Song Contest helped choreographer Michael Flatley parlay its sudden fame from a seven-minute musical number into an evening of Irish stepdancing, Subsequent Flatley productions (Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, Celtic Tiger) toured internationally.

Not only did Flatley receive recognition from the Guinness Book of Records in 1999 and 2000 as the highest paid dancer (earning $1,600,000 per week), he was also lauded for having the highest insurance policy placed on a dancer's legs ($40 million)! While Flatley's music and dance extravaganzas entertained millions, a more sobering style of Irish drama is currently on view before Bay area audiences.

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Martin McDonagh (A Behanding in Spokane) is often hailed for his fierce sense of humor and ability to portray uniquely dysfunctional patterns of behavior onstage.  His dramedy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is currently being presented by the Marin Theatre Company in a sparse production designed by Nina Ball and directed by Mark Jackson.

Joy Carlin as Mag Folan in The Beauty Queen of Leenane
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Beth Wilmurt stars as Maureen Folan, a bitter old maid whose past includes a brief hospitalization for mental illness. After her sisters got married and moved away, Maureen has spent the past two decades caring for her decrepit, manipulative mother. The 70-year-old Mag (Joy Carlin) knows how to act helpless when necessary and has found numerous ways to drive her daughter crazy.

To no one's surprise, Maureen's toxic combination of bitterness, rage, and a lack of fulfillment has found an outlet in the sarcastic insults she heaps upon her mother. Old Mag tries to keep her daughter (who cleans other people's homes) on a tight tether. Whenever an opportunity arises for Maureen to enjoy a night out, her mother finds new ways to sabotage a rare moment of happiness. As Margot Melcon writes in her program note:
"All playwrights create the world for their characters to inhabit from the ground up, taking what they know to build a sense of authenticity but then letting their imaginations run to places that they have not or cannot visit. For the residents of Leenane, there is a unique notion of right and wrong that has settled over the entire town.  Nastiness is common, sometimes simply a means of entertaining oneself until a better song comes on the radio.  The characters are like adult children, without a clear sense of what is a reasonable response nor an understanding of ultimate consequences.  Their actions are extreme, as if the entire town has opted in on a code of social behavior that leads to meanness and violence."
Beth Wilmurt, Rod Gnapp, and Joy Carlin in a scene from
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

After Maureen brings an old friend, construction worker Pato Dooley (Rod Gnapp), home for the night, fireworks ensue. Rising before Maureen, Pato graciously consents to make Mag some porridge for her breakfast.

The old woman (who likes to empty her bedpan into the kitchen sink) does her best to humiliate her daughter in front of Pato. When Maureen's insecurities finally erupt, Pato tries to assure her that he thinks she's beautiful and she has absolutely no need to apologize for her looks.

Months after he has left Leenane to do construction work in London, Pato writes a letter to Maureen, explaining that he is going to take advantage of an offer to work in Boston and would very much like for her to join him in America. Even though he has given his kid brother, Ray (Joseph Salazar) instructions that this letter must be hand-delivered to Maureen -- and no one else --  the old woman slyly manipulates Ray into leaving the letter with her.

Needless to say, Maureen never gets to read it. When she realizes the desperate length to which her mother went to keep her at home, her sadistic instincts take over.  Following the old woman's funeral, Ray drops by to pay his respects and delivers a shocking piece of news about his older brother.

Beth Wilmurt and Joseph Salazar in a scene from
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane gives Wilmurt a superb opportunity to demonstrate her range, even when battling Joseph Salazar's nearly unintelligible accent as Ray Dooley. Under Jackson's direction, Rod Gnapp delivers Pato's monologue with the kind of confused masculinity that he has successfully brought to so many characters in Bay area productions. Joy Carlin portrays Mag as a crafty old witch whose demise is almost a relief from her years of geriatric fear and pain.

Beth Wilmurt and Joy Carlin star in
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The Beauty Queen of Leenane continue through June 16 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here to order tickets).

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Suppose you fell in love with someone's writing and desperately wanted to produce a play that featured three unnamed characters performing a series of monologues that overlap and eventually intertwine in slithery and shocking ways. One thing's for sure: You couldn't stage this play on a standard living-room set. In Mark O'Rowe's one-act play,Terminus:
  • One character (Marissa Keltie) is a lonely young woman who, bored with her stay-at-home habits, responds to a friend's invitation to go out drinking and ends up falling off a crane at a construction site.
  • Another character (Stacy Ross) is a middle-aged schoolteacher volunteering for a crisis hotline who tries to reach out to a distressed caller who is eight months pregnant, only to be brutally beaten by the caller's angry lesbian lover.
  • The third character (Carl Lumbly) desperately wants to move people with his singing voice -- so much so that he makes a pact with a demon who anally rapes him and then uses his tail to pull the man's intestines out of his abdomen through his mouth.
Marissa Keltie, Carl Lumbly, and Stacy Ross in Terminus
Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

The producing artistic director of Magic Theatre, Loretta Greco, notes that:
"In a field of exquisite and prolific contemporary Irish writers (McPherson, McDonagh, Walsh), it is O'Rowe's voice that I find incomparable.  His staggering hybrid language, his emotionally compelling characters, and his insistence on awakening and elevating our imaginative muscles with a densely  layered Faustian tale, are what makes Terminus a poster child for the kind of work we are championing here at Magic Theatre."
Using a potent combination of black rubber mulch, fog machines, and monochromatic sodium vapor lighting (like the kind of street lights used  on the Golden Gate Bridge), set designer Robert Brill and lighting designer Gabe Maxson have built a production whose eerie gloom envelops the audience from the moment people enter the theatre and continues to haunt the action until the final blackout. Together with sound designer Sara Huddleston they have created a ghoulish environment that could easily be mistaken for the corner of an open pit mine or the entrance to hell.

O'Rowe's script is like a crash course in the power of storytelling.  As director Jon Tracy explains: "Each member of the audience can come up with an answer for themselves that won't be challenged by the person next to them. They can have their own experience. If you are a lover of language, you come and work on this show. You play with these words."

There's an old adage which claims that "If your work is good, it will speak for itself. If your work is bad, nothing you can say will make it sound better." When your work is fooking brilliant, it stands in a class all its own.

Terminus unfolds on a dark and smarmy night in Dublin, Ireland. Tracy has staged the drama's long (almost Wagnerian) monologues with a minimum of histrionics, letting the audience be drawn into the hypnotic power of the playwright's skill at telling a tale and telling it well. As the playwright explains:
"Terminus is told in monologue form so that we don't have to represent any of this crazy stuff onstage. I'm not sure why I like monologues. I kind of just like their simplicity. It might come out of a love of language and sounds.  An actor comes on stage and tells us a story and that's it -- except that's actually far from it. The words create pictures.  If you describe a demon made of millions of worms, people will see it because you say it and the audience creates their own picture in their head."

Aside from the playwright's wild imagination -- which leaves the audience gasping in ways one would expect from a Stephen King story, the most intriguing feature of Terminus is O'Rowe's use of internal rhyming.  "I began writing the play and rhymed a couple of words by accident, so I thought I'd see where that went," he recalls.  "The process was painstaking at times, and at times completely exhilarating.  The rhyming structure is completely intuitive and so, hopefully, this gives the language a feeling of being both musical and spontaneous."

Marissa Keltie, Carl Lumbly, and Stacy Ross in Terminus
Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

Beautifully written, meticulously staged, and achingly performed by three gifted actors, O'Rowe's play gives new meaning to the phrase "wrestling with demons." thanks to dialect coach Deborah Sussel, no Irish accent becomes so thick as to obscure the language (click here for a sample clip from the production).

Performances of Terminus continue at the Magic Theatre through June 16 (click here to order tickets). This is the kind of tough love theatrical experience that is not to be missed!

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