It’s Murphy to the max in Dublin

Key stagings highlight Irish scribe's diversity

The dark power of Tom Murphy’s plays and a wallopingly entertaining new collaboration from Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan towered over this year’s Eircom Dublin Theater Festival.

That the remainder of the festival program felt rather thin, particularly on the domestic side, is reflective of a lack of mid- to large-scale work being produced on the Irish legit scene. The concurrent Dublin Fringe Festival ably indicated, however, that small to mid-scale work is alive and well: Its 65-event program featured work from nearly every independent Irish theater company of note, as well as a few promising newcomers.

Total festival box office take was approximately 630,000 Irish pounds ($725,000), slightly up from last year; officials say attendance was at about 80% overall. The Fringe sold upwards of 60,000 seats, with attendance up 15% from last year.

The Abbey Theater’s contribution was a major and unprecedented celebration of Tom Murphy’s plays, which argued conclusively for his status as one of Ireland’s greatest living writers. At the same time it offered, perhaps, an explanation of his relative lack of recognition abroad: His work is virtually impossible to categorize or pigeonhole. The 66-year-old writer’s subject matter, quite simply, is the human condition in all its scope and mystery, and the only thing more astonishing than the liberties he takes with traditional subject matter and form is his ability to pull it all off.

Take this plot synopsis, for starters: When an Irish millionaire hires a quack English self-help counselor to teach him to sing like opera singer Beniamino Gigli, both men are transformed by the relationship and revelations that ensue. Or this: A failed circus strongman takes refuge in a city-center church and, in the company of a orphaned waif, faces his failings and finally has a reckoning with the juggler who stole his wife’s affections. Or this: A senile woman rambles in her bed about a laughing contest in a nearby village, until her granddaughter finally pushes her to finish the story and acknowledge the grief it masks.

Not too promising as good nights out? What’s missing, of course, from these descriptions — of “The Gigli Concert” (1983), “The Sanctuary Lamp” (1975) and “Bailegangaire” (1985) — is the thrill of Murphy’s ability to create characters that function both as credible individuals and as vessels of a universal sense of human striving: for expression, for a sense of self and of history, for something transcendent and enduring.

All three plays here benefited from exemplary and beautifully cast productions: Owen Roe and Mark Lambert were a match of equals in Ben Barnes’ powerful “Gigli Concert,” with Catherine Walsh providing admirable support as the Irishman’s sometime girlfriend, whom he realizes too late he really loves.

Lynne Parker’s inspired production of “Sanctuary Lamp,” with live music and sound effects, got the tone of heightened realism just right, with established actors Stephen Brennan and Frank McCusker, in excellent form, joined by luminous newcomer Sarah Jane Drummey.

Murphy’s production of “Bailegangaire” (Irish for “the town without laughter,” if you’re wondering) was a model of clarity and precision, with the great Pauline Flanagan matching wits as the ranting Mommo with Jane Brennan as the wounded granddaughter Mary and Derbhle Crotty as Mary’s louche, equally troubled sister Dolly.

The Murphy season included two other full productions: his first play, “A Whistle in the Dark” (1961), a more straightforward (but no less heartbreaking) story of a displaced family of Irishmen destroying themselves through violence in 1960s Coventry, here rendered with spectacular power by director Conall Morrison and a fine cast; and Gerard Stembridge’s production of one of Murphy’s more fantastical plays, “The Morning After Optimism” (1971), which received mixed notices locally.

In marked contrast to the Friel festival of several years ago, some of which was seen at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, this celebration picked the great plays and did them great justice: It deserves a future life.

The international highlight of the festival was the Betty Nansen Theater of Copenhagen’s production of “Woyzeck,” which found director-designer Wilson and composer-lyricists Waits and Brennan firing on all cylinders. Though some purists have pooh-poohed this production’s perceived distortion of George Buchner’s 1837 text, in fact the grandiose, carnival-like setting renders the situation of the title character, a soldier disenfranchised from his work and wronged by his lover, all the more isolated and tragic. The rest of the fest’s international entries were solid but unspectacular: Peter Brook’s well-traveled “Le Costume”; Pete Postlethwaite as a 100-year-old clown in a new solo play by Justin Butcher; Simon Callow’s entertaining but hardly groundbreaking solo turn in “The Mystery of Charles Dickens.”

Domestically, the Gate Theater presented an evening of three short plays by well-known Irish writers: While Neil Jordan’s and Conor McPherson’s entries disappointed in the extreme, Friel struck gold with “The Yalta Game,” a theme from a Chekhov story lovingly transformed into a celebration of the imagination and beautifully realized by director Karel Reisz and performers Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly.

Something of an entertaining oddity was “Ich Liebe Dich,” an evening of Kurt Weill songs performed by Irish cult-rock star Gavin Friday. While the environment was marvelously seedy, Maurice Seezer’s six-piece band musically spot-on and Friday doubtless a bizarrely alluring performer, the fact that this was the only event the festival itself produced felt disappointing — it was much more cabaret than theater.

In its seven-year existence, the Dublin Fringe has spread to inhabit nearly every possible performance venue in the city, and its formal bounds have expanded to include performance art, dance, comedy and theater ranging from meat-and-potatoes proscenium plays to bare-bones monologues and two-handers.

This year’s highlights included a delightful devised play about workplace nastiness, “Scenes From a Watercooler,” from Guna Nua Theater Co.; an inspired adaptation of a little-known Jane Austen novella for two female actors, “Lady Susan,” by Inis Theater; and two solid and promising (if overly schematic) plays by emerging writers: “Midden,” the story of three generations of Northern Irish women by Morna Regan; and Loughlin Deegan’s “The Queen and Peacock” — that rarest of birds, an Irish gay play.

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