Barabbas … the company takes audiences on a breakneck comic journey through a classic of the Irish theatrical repertoire with “The Whiteheaded Boy,” which recently returned to Dublin following a highly successful Irish tour (and which will be presented at London’s Greenwich Docklands Festival next month). Gerard Stembridge’s masterful production is at once a reinvention of and a tribute to this well-made play, revealing a deep and probing understanding of theatrical tradition and of Ireland past and present.
First presented at the Abbey in 1916, “The Whiteheaded Boy” is set in a typical Irish small-town household which is thrown into a frenzy, as the play begins, with the return of son Denis from Dublin’s Trinity College. He is the whiteheaded boy of the title – the apple of his mother’s eye and the butt of his siblings’ resentment as a result – who, we learn, has just failed his exams.
Rather than face the shame of this failure, the family plan to ship him off to Canada; he just wants to marry his sweetheart, get a job and settle down in thecountry. Hijinks, marriage proposals, bribes and counter-bribes ensue as the family members exploit and misinterpret Denis’ situation.
Simple on the surface, the play is in fact a pointed analysis of Irish culture that remains eerily relevant today. Mrs. Geoghegan, in her coddling of Denis, represents at once the loving but stifling Mother Ireland and the English colonial presence; when the actors turn to the audience to ask, about Denis: “Isn’t he like old Ireland asking for freedom, and we’re like the fools of Englishmen offering him every bloody thing except the one thing?,” the line resonates all the way to Stormont.
The three core members of Barabbas, Veronica Coburn, Raymond Keane, and Mikel Murfi, clad in simple gray-and-white outfits, take on 11 of the 12 roles, crossing over gender and age lines and often playing multiple characters within one scene. Trained at the Lecoc school, the three are highly skilled physical comedians who have found distinctive and very funny interpretations of each character.
They perform not only the dialogue but Robinson’s charmingly opinionated stage directions as well (“He’s kissed her, glory be to God!” “Here she comes. Isn’t she a great lump of a girl?”), and when not in a scene, stand at the sidelines watching the action with delight.
As if this weren’t metadrama enough, there’s yet another layer: The whiteheaded boy himself is played by a fourth performer, Louis Lovett, whose arrival onstage in period costume and naturalistic demeanor seems just as surprising to the other performers as it is to the audience.
As the action continues, we watch this refugee from Robinson’s world gradually assimilate into the Barabbas ensemble; at the end, he is rewarded with his own gray suit and becomes one of them.
Like Conall Morrison’s wildly theatrical reinvention of the novel “Tarry Flynn” (which will be remounted at London’s National Theater this September), “The Whiteheaded Boy” is a new look at an Irish classic that throws fresh light on the culture even as it delights on its own terms. It achieves a balance that theater so often aspires to and seldom realizes – to be truly sophisticated and completely accessible at the same time.