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PICT's 'Major Barbara' joins hit ranks in Galway

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

GALWAY CITY, Ireland -- Take a lively port city of 65,000 on the rocky western shore of Ireland, stir in some 400 artists and as many as 120,000 visitors for two weeks of theater, music, visual arts, drinking and revelry, and the result is the colorful, citywide international party known as the Galway Arts Festival, now in its 26th year.

Irish playwright Tom Murphy, whose "The Drunkard" debuted at this year's Galway Arts Festival, crouches in front of an outdoor portrait sculpture of himself done by France's Bernard Pras out of found objects. The installation is by the Spanish Arch. (Joe O'Shaughnessy photos)

For information on the Galway Arts Festival, call 011-353-91-566-577 or visit www.galwayartsfestival.ie. For Ireland West Tourism contact 011-353-91-563-081 or info@irelandwest.ie.

Galway is a city long known to many Pittsburghers -- cab drivers speak casually of their friends the Rooneys -- not just as a colorful tourist gateway to the Aran Islands and the wilds of Connemara, but also for its internationally known literary life focused on the famous Kenny's Book Store. But this year there's another Pittsburgh link via the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, whose production of G.B. Shaw's "Major Barbara" is one of the hits of the festival.

After doing "Major Barbara" in Pittsburgh, June 12-28, PICT's 11 actors and three crew members arrived in Galway on July 12 to set up at the Druid Theatre, home of the company that launched such international hits as "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "Stones in His Pocket." They're now in the midst of the festival's most extended schedule, 14 performances ending Saturday, more than any of its 13 other theater events, including the other chief international attraction, Steppenwolf from Chicago.

For all its fame, the Druid is a wee venue -- 90 seats in an ancient building in the oldest part of town -- and even with a scaled-down set, PICT has had its ingenuity taxed in compressing a large show to fit. Next week, Bingo O'Malley, Derdriu Ring, Andrew Paul, Scott Ferrara, Kate Young and the others move on again, expanding into the larger Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, a suburb of Dublin, to run July 29-Aug. 16.

"Major Barbara" has grown greatly since its Pittsburgh opening. The audience in Galway finds the seriocomic conflict among the warrior industrialist, his conventional wife, his Salvation Army daughter and her intellectual fiance as current as George Bush, Haliburton and Iraq, and during the intermission is happy to descant at length on the similarities. And the reviews so far have been admiring.

But "Major Barbara" isn't the only show in town.

The biggest theater events, big in different ways, were two: the world premiere of a new play by Tom Murphy, one of the living legends of Irish theater and a Galway favorite, since he hails from Tuam, just 20 miles away; and "The Mysteries," a joint production with a company from Coventry, England, with a cast of 90 and fabulous props, staged on an outdoor tennis court.

The other chief attractions, of course, are the friendly and articulate Irish and Galway itself, a bustling town running down stony alleyways to the Spanish Arch by the quays where the River Corrib cascades into Galway Bay. Wherever you go you stumble on visual art, most theatrically an outdoor portrait sculpture of Murphy by France's Bernard Pras made out of found objects, most humorously "Ester Williams" by France's Anne Ferrer -- dancing pink pigs floating near the cathedral -- and most ubiquitously an Art Trail connecting 14 locations. The most moving indoor exhibit is by Germany's Nils-Udo, stunning big photographs of installations using turf, reeds, willow and water on the moors, lakes and peat bogs of Connemara.

Three days wasn't remotely enough.

Tom Murphy, 'The Drunkard'

Fate and PICT have taken me to three Murphy plays in the past year -- "The Gigli Concert" at PICT, "Conversations on a Homecoming" at the Dublin Theatre Festival and "Bailengangaire" at New York's Irish Rep. But nothing prepared me for his newest, "The Drunkard," a remarkable balancing act between comic style and emotional heart.

Among the outdoor works at the Galway Arts Festival is "Ester Williams" -- a group of dancing pink pigs floating near the cathedral -- by France's Anne Ferrer.

Murphy has taken the material of an 1830s American melodrama of the same name, two other old melodramas and snippets from authors ranging from Shakespeare to Bouccicault to Eugene Field, and created something both traditional and, well, post-modern. The conventional story is about a young heir (Rory Keenan, a Brad Pitt look-alike), happily married with a child, who sinks into hopeless alcoholism. His pure wife (Sarah-Jane Drummey) soldiers on, fending off the attacks of the villainous Lawyer McGinty (Stephen Brennan), aided by other familiar characters (the loyal friend, the dotty psychic) and the white-clad Sir Arden (Nick Dunning), who eventually sets all right.

It's parody, of course, the heroine and villain as pure and evil as can be, with rich 19th-century language and continuous musical underscoring (piano, cello, reeds) calling amused attention to themselves. But staged on a tilted green platform framed in blue, using contemporary costumes, it is also something more: The stylized acting is inter-cut with moments of painful realism, especially in a shocking scene between husband and wife. We laugh at the styles, but we're moved by the emotions, and the horrors of drink (a serious problem in modern Ireland) are feelingly portrayed.

Under the direction of Lynne Parker of Rough Magic and Abbey Theatres, the play walks a knife edge between melodrama spoofed and transcended. All this ambivalence is encapsulated in Sir Arden, who narrates with ostentatious aplomb, taking himself in and out of the action, commenting archly one minute and urging earnest morality the next. "The Drunkard" is a dizzying mix.

'Hurl,' Barabbas Theatre

The Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre cast and crew of "Major Barbara" in haircurlers and partial costume between performances at Galway's Druid Threatre. Standing (left to right): Bruce Hill, Kate Young, Scott Ferrara, Ingrid Sonnichsen, Arlene Merryman and Jyoti Mittal; Seated: Tessa Klein, Bingo O'Malley, Andrew Paul, Derdriu Ring, Jessie Ksanznak and Susaan Jamshidi; Missing: Matthew Gaydos.

This 10-year-old Dublin company specializes in physical theater, creating out of an ensemble-based clown tradition. Written by Charlie O'Neill, "Hurl" is a work in progress that marries those traditions to a multi-ethnic cast of characters and the Gaelic sport of hurling, a sort of three-dimensional field hockey played with shillelagh-like stick and a baseball-like ball.

The story is as conventional as melodrama. A mixed group of immigrants from war-torn countries in Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus and South America, some illegal, some seeking political asylum, approach a defrocked drunken priest to coach a hurling team, a sport some learned from missionaries in Africa. Against all odds including racism and the opposition of the Gaelic sports establishment, they eventually win the championship.

No surprises there. But the play is really about the multi-ethnic face of newly internationalized Ireland. The joy of the African, Hispanic, Slavic and Asian cast is infectious, as is the physical game of hurling, which supports many a telling metaphor about life in Ireland and everywhere -- no surprise to those of us used to seeing our sports as metaphors. The cast of eight puts great energy into the game sequences, and the play has the grace to end on a quiet down note -- a deportee, held in solitary confinement back in Sierre Leone, receiving a letter about his friends' triumph.

'The Mysteries'

Recently there have been many contemporary adaptations of the medieval mystery plays, a cycle of Bible stories traditionally staged by guilds or other communal groups. The most famous was a transposition into an early 20th-century working-class milieu staged 25 years ago (and recently revived) at London's National Theatre, and there's also been a touring African choral version.

This "Mysteries" is a massive collaboration between Ireland's Macnas Theatre and the Belgrade Theatre of Coventry, where the mysteries began. Its many resources and its sense of special event make it memorable, but they also sharpen disappointment that it doesn't achieve more.

About 90 minutes long, staged for a standing audience of several hundred surrounding a tennis court, the play is framed by Jesus questioning his sacrifice. Mary is ecstatic, but Joseph shares his son's doubts. The story of the ark is thrillingly enacted and various other Old and New Testament events are alluded to, sometimes glancingly through abstract dance, before the final passion comes.

The core of pro actors is miked, and there is amplified music and lighting, which gradually gains force as the evening darkens, though the sky is still partially light when it ends at 9:30. Wonderful animal puppets mounted in pairs on actors' shoulders throng toward the ark, which is impressively constructed out of huge wooden staves. Moving platforms include a tree that rains -- and in the real trees above, real rooks and swallows add natural counterpoint.

Granted, the cast of nearly 90 comprises primarily earnest amateurs, but the professional leadership doesn't use them as well as it could. The text is self-consciously arty, and too often the large ensemble stands useless as we listen to Jesus, Jonah/Joseph (a powerful Joe Speare) and Mary talk redundantly. When the ensemble does move, it mainly moves in small, crowded units, rather than unleashing the sweeping energy it could. The professional lead dancers, too, are limited to old-fashioned dance abstractions better suited to a small stage than this big, potentially exciting space.

But the anger of the text, protesting the cruelty and waste of sacrifice -- that's interesting. Jesus and Jonah/Joseph are black, further evidence of evolving Ireland. And those animals are wonderful.

'Don't Sleep,' Theatro Punto

This is a skillful small commedia dell'arte trio, telling a comic-sad story of a mother and two brothers caught up in the horrible folly of the Spanish Civil War. Their technique is impeccable -- stand-up-funny talk with the audience, then disappearing into characters defined by masks and polished physicalization. Well-trained but also improvisatory, the Galway-based, Hispanic-heritage troupe mixes in a half-dozen languages and plays off the audience as opportunity arises. It is an artistic reminder of Ireland's centuries-old cultural ties to the continent as well as its recent turn toward the European Union.

Contact Chris Rawson at 412-263-1666 orcrawson@post-gazette.com .

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