Posts Tagged ‘Brian Friel’

Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel
Directed by Gary Barker
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 15, 2017

Michelle Hand, Amy Loui, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Leslie Wobbe, Kelley Weber
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “memory play” Dancing at Lughnasa, as staged currently at Mustard Seed Theatre, is almost like a prose poem on stage. With its strong sense of time and place, and its conceit of having the narrator both interacting with the story and also reflecting upon it, the show takes on a lyrical tone that works well. With a cast of some of St. Louis’s finest performers and top-notch production values, this is a profoundly affecting theatrical experience.

The story is told by the adult Michael Evans (Jim Butz), reflecting back on an important time in his life, the summer of 1936 when he was a 7-year-old child growing up in the small Irish village of Ballybeg. The key figures in the story are the five Mundy sisters, including Michael’s mother, the youngest sister Christina or “Chris” (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). The five sisters live together in a small cottage, including the eldest, prim schoolteacher Kate (Amy Loui), as well as the boisterous Maggie (Kelley Weber), the melancholy Agnes (Leslie Wobbe), and developmentally challenged Rose (Michelle Hand). The sisters seem to cooperate in the raising of Michael, who doesn’t appear on stage as a child–rather the adult Michael “plays” the young Michael in occasional conversations with his mother and aunts. Amid the local celebrations of the pagan holiday Lughnasa, the sisters are celebrating the return of their older brother, Father Jack (Gary Glasgow), who has recently returned from many years of missionary work in Africa, and who isn’t quite the same as his sisters remember. There’s also Gerry Evans (Richard Strelinger), Michael’s Welsh father, who never married Chris but who stops by occasionally in the midst of his travels to visit Michael and Chris. While in the past, Gerry’s visits have been the cause for much consternation, this latest visit starts out that way but grows more hopeful, at least for a while. The story that follows is a vivid picture of a time and place, as well as these richly portrayed characters and their conflicting attitudes toward the world around them and the great changes that are starting to take place. The conflict between Catholicism and the ancient local beliefs and customs, as well as changing economic realities and the roles of women in society, are among the issues that are brought up here. There’s a lot of warmth and humor here, as well as music and exuberant dancing in addition to regret and even tragedy, structured in a way that makes the story all the more poignant in that older Michael often explains future events before we actually see them play out in the story.

The cast here is excellent, led by Butz’s engaging, reflective Michael, who serves as an effective narrator but also is believable in his moments as “young Michael” interacting with the rest of the cast. All five sisters are strongly portrayed, with Weber’s upbeat Maggie, Wobbe’s wistful Agnes, and Theby-Quinn’s conflicted and sometimes moody Chris as the biggest standouts. All five actresses are strong, though, and their bond as sisters is clearly evident. Also memorable is Glasgow, in the best performance I’ve seen from him, as the weary but well-meaning Father Jack, whose personal crisis of faith becomes evident as the story progresses. Strelinger rounds out the cast in an amiable performance as the charming, always-wandering Gerry, who has some particularly effective scenes with Theby-Quinn and with Wobbe. The Irish accents are consistent throughout, as well, with the exception of Strelinger, who affects a believable English accent although his character is Welsh.

The Irish village setting is vividly realized in Kyra Bishop’s beautifully detailed set, Jane Sullivan’s well-appointed costumes, and Laura Skroska’s props. The vintage radio, called “Marconi”, essentially becomes a character in its own right. There’s also excellent sound design by Zoe Sulliven and striking lighting by Michael Sullivan. All of these technical aspects work together well, along with the strong direction and performances, to transport the audience to 1930’s Ireland.

Although I had heard of Dancing at Lughnasa before, I had never actually seen it on stage until this production. Mustard Seed’s production is lovingly, poetically told and beautifully portrayed by its strong, cohesive cast. It’s an excellent conclusion to this company’s 2016-2017 season.

Gary Glasgow, Amy Loui, Michelle Hand, Leslie Wobbe, Richard Strelinger
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Dancing at Lughnasa at Fontbonne University until April 30, 2017.

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by Brian Friel
Directed by Jan Meyer
West End Players Guild
February 15, 2014

John Lampe, Betsy Bowman Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

John Lampe, Betsy Bowman
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Valentine’s Day is traditionally a time for lovers, and West End Players Guild as chosen this weekend to open their latest production, Irish playwright Brian Friel’s appropriately named Lovers.  Contrary to the title, however, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a romance. It’s not even really one play. It’s a mini-cycle of two contrasting plays, providing a look into life and Irish culture in the 1960’s. It’s a low-key production that hits many profound notes.

Lovers tells two stories in its two contrasting short plays. Act 1, called “Winners”, features teenagers Joe (John Lampe) and Mag (Betsy Bowman) who are spending an afternoon studying for exams as they prepare to leave school and get married because Mag is pregnant. As two detached commentators (Steve Callahan and Kristy Wehrle) narrate the action and give details of what happens after this day, Joe and Mag argue, reflect, hope and plan for their future in a society where their lives will soon be changed significantly. It’s a section full of youthful impulsiveness, energetic banter, and even a little yelling and screaming as these two young sweethearts consider their options and share their dreams, all while the dispassionate observers reveal some extra information that adds weight, and a large degree of cynicism, to the situation.  Act 2 is called “Losers” and followers and older courting couple, Andy (Colin Nichols) and Hanna (Theresa Masters) as they attempt to establish a relationship and marriage despite the passive-aggressive manipulation of Hanna’s devout Catholic mother (Suzanne Greenwald), who with the assistance of an equally devout elderly neighbhor (Liz Hopefl) tries to use her faith, and particularly involved nightly prayer sessions, to drive a wedge between the couple.

Full of contrasting humor and tension, Lovers is a sharp examination of Irish culture of the time and the influence of the community, and a particular brand of  Catholicism, on individuals’ lives and prospects for romantic happiness.  Both segments deal with these cultural issues in different ways.  Joe and Mag are wide-eyed and hopeful one minute, and combative the next as they face the prospect of a life together. They appear to be genuinely in love, but their widely battling personalities and the social pressure to leave school and get married casts some doubt on their future happiness.  Andy and Hanna, on the other hand, face a more directly personal form of pressure in the person of Hanna’s mother and her determination to control all aspects of her daughter’s life.  It’s outrageously funny in places, but the undertone of tragedy is there also, in both acts.  It’s a reflection, it seems, of Friel’s own doubts about the culture of the times, and his examination of its ultimate implications.

The look of this production is simple, with just a few set pieces (designed by Ethan Dudenhoeffer) and period-appropriate costumes (by Renee Sevier-Monsey) to establish the atmosphere. The “Winners” segment is is full of brighter colors suggesting the youthful energy of the two protaganists, while the “Losers” segment shows a more muted color scheme, suggesting a tone of weariness, and director Jan Meyer makes excellent use of the performance areas in the dynamic staging.  Acting-wise, the cast is in excellent form. Lampe and Bowman are a study in contrast as the youthful Joe and Mag. Lampe’s Joe is quieter, reflective and more practical than the fiery, impulsive Mag. Their romantic chemistry is readily evident, and charming. Callahan and Wehrle are effective as the coldly efficient but not unsympathetic narrators, as well.  The “Losers” cast is also well-chosen, with Nichols’s wry Andy and Masters’s alternately eager and jaded Hanna making an entertaining match.  Greenwald is hilariously histrionic as Hanna’s mother, and Hopefl is gleefully melodramatic as the neighbhor, as these two provide much of this segment’s over-the-top humor.

Without giving away too much, I will say that I find Friel’s vision to be bleak, but very vividly realized in his richly drawn characters and situations.  The tagline on the program reads “Love is a very funny tragedy”, and that plays out clearly in this production. It’s a well-crafted play, and West End Players guild has presented it in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. There are a lot of laughs, but also a lot to think and talk about. It may not be a traditional Valentine’s offering, but it’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

Theresa Masters, Colin Nichols Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Theresa Masters, Colin Nichols
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

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Here in the second part of my London series, I’m reviewing the two plays I saw in one day.  It was only the second time I had seen two shows in the same day, as well as the first time I ever stood in line for “Day Seats” for a show.  That was a fairly painless experience except it wasn’t exactly warm that day, and my friend and I had to wait for about an hour before the doors opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre, but we were first in line and able to get our front row seats for 10 pounds each.  The bargain was worth the wait.  It was a mixture of serious drama and crazy comedy that day, featuring three performers I was most familiar with through the UK TV show Gavin and Stacey, with one (Sheridan Smith) acting against type and the other two (Adrian Scarborough and Rob Brydon) playing more expected roles but doing them extremely well.  Here are my reviews:

Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen

In a version by Brian Friel

Directed by Anna Mackmin

Old Vic Theatre, London

October 27, 2012

I am almost ashamed to admit I had never seen or read this play before I saw it in London, despite its being an extremely well-known classic of the theatre by the famed 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and my having heard much about it.  I had read some Ibsen  in drama class in high school, but for some reason never got around to this one.  The main draw for me to see this play was the much talked-about performance in the title role by Sheridan Smith, a television and stage actress much more well-known for comic roles than for serious drama.

This is a new translation with some embellishments by Irish playwright Brian Friel, and I’ve seen reviews that criticize some of Friel’s dialogue choices, but since this is the only version of the play I have seen, I can only review what I saw, and I thought it was excellent.  All aspects of the production, from the inventive set which allowed action to occur and be seen in several rooms behind the main performance area, to the minimalistic but highly effective use of music, to the meticulously detailed costumes and universally superb performances, made this a production worth seeing and remembering for a long time.

This is the story of Hedda Gabler, the strong-willed and self-centered daughter of a general who has married, against general expectation, an earnest and dedicated but seemingly unromantic professor, George Tesman (Adrian Scarborough), and is trying to start a new life with her husband amid shadows of her past and the appearance of her old paramour and current academic rival of George’s, Eilert Loevborg (Daniel Lapaine) as well as a former school acquaintance, the seemingly meek but determined Thea Elvsted (Fenella Woolgar).  What starts out as a seemingly simple character study soon develops into an increasingly suspenseful drama that takes an ultimately tragic turn in several different ways.

Hedda is a much celebrated role noted for its complexity and challenge, and it has been played by many a great actress in the past. Here, the role is taken by Smith, perhaps not the obvious choice in a lot of people’s minds, but the casting works surprisingly well. The great thing about Smith’s performance is that she really goes for it, disappearing completely into the role and bringing so many dimensions to this character that, even though she does some downright awful things, she still holds the audience’s attention and even sympathy.  It would be easy with a character like this and some of her actions to just write her off as a vindictive bitch, and she is that but she’s more as well.  Ibsen wrote the character with some sympathy inherent in her situation, but it takes a great actress to convincingly portray all aspects of the character, from her unbelievable cruelty on the one side, to her very obvious sense of regret and helplessness on the other.  There is also a real sense of affection(although not passion) between Hedda and George at the beginning of the play that makes the events of later on seem all the more tragic.

This is a solid cast all around, but the two real standouts aside from Smith are Scarborough as George and Woolgar as Thea, Hedda’s childhood adversary turned adult rival for the soul of tortured alcoholic writer Loevborg.  The common thread to both of these performances is their sense of moral fortitude and inherent strength despite their initial appearance of fastidiousness (George) or nervousness (Thea).  Both of these characters seem to represent different foils to Hedda, as well as representations of hope should Hedda choose to allow them to be that.  Hedda herself is so locked in the past—the power she used to feel over those around her and her destructive hold on Loevborg—that she is in a way trapped, especially toward the end when the initially jovial and buffoonish Judge Brack (Darrell D’Silva) reveals a much more sinister side.  The ultimate conclusion is telegraphed in the structure of the play, expertly crafted by Ibsen and brilliantly performed by all the players with devastating impact.

This was quite an intense play, and the technical aspects-music and lighting–helped set the mood.  I really need to read more Ibsen. I was impressed not just with the production of this play, but with the structure of it, and I think I will be checking out more of his plays.  This production was a great re-introduction to Ibsen’s work for me, and a very impressive effort from all involved.

A Chorus of Disapproval

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Harold Pinter Theatre, London

October 27th, 2012

This play was a great contrast to Hedda Gabler and, even though it is a revival, it features a lead performance seemingly tailor-made for actor Rob Brydon.  The role of amateur operatic society directory Dafydd ap Llywellyn suits Brydon so well it may as well have been written for him.  Dafydd (don’t call him “David”) is a proud Welshman who has his hand in all aspects of the production even as it all spins out of control.  Brydon brings a lot of energy and affability to the role, as well as a strong singing voice, and his rendition of “All Through the Night” in Welsh is a treat.  Brydon brings a lot of sympathy to this befuddled and at times exasperating character, and the rest of the cast supports him well, but this is really Brydon’s show.  He is full of physical and emotional energy as he runs around the stage and into the audience, and at turns sings, shouts, lectures, and bemoans his situation at various times throughout the play.

Simply told, this is the story of a small town amateur operatic society in the midst of rehearsing a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and all the messy relationship situations that happen along the way. The catalyst of it all is Guy Jones (Nigel Harman), fittingly named because he basically is just a guy in the middle of everything.  He’s an amiable enough character, but as written there isn’t much for him to do but smile and let all the events unfold around him as he joins the society and finds himself embroiled in intrigue both within the production and outside.  We aren’t told much about him except that he can sing, he’s from Leeds, and he works for a local company that is rumored to be involved in a real estate deal that effects some of the other members of the society.  For whatever reason, Guy just seems to attract trouble, as well as the attentions of Dafydd’s neglected wife Hannah (Ashley Jensen) and another society member, the frisky swinger Fay (Daisy Beaumont), whose husband (Paul Thornley) is hoping to benefit from the real estate deal.  As Guy moves from one role to another in the production, the self-absorbed and clueless Dafydd hovers and fruitlessly tries to keep every situation under his control.

In addition to the wonderful Brydon, there are some excellent performances here.  Nigel Harman brings a warmth and affability to the role of Guy that makes his situations believable and relatable, and Jensen plays the bored housewife very well and has good chemistry with both Brydon and Harman.  There are some great scenes with these three, especially one of a tech rehearsal in which Guy and Hannah are attempting to talk about their issues while Dafydd argues with the lighting technician.  There is an excellent supporting cast of distinctive characters as well to round out the production, and the costumes and sets also contribute  well to provide a very strong sense of time and place (a small English town in the mid-1980s).

This isn’t the deepest of plays, and a whole lot of problems pile up only to be left mostly unresolved by the end, but by and large this is a highly entertaining production led by a tour-de-force performance by Brydon.  It was fun sitting in the front row and getting a great view of all of his antics.  If it can ever really be said that an actor was born to play a role, then surely Brydon was born to play this one.  It suits him so perfectly, and it was a joy to watch him and this whole hilarious production.

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