Redefined classics star at Dublin fest

'Moon' shot pays off at popular event

A breakthrough dance-theater work from London-based Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and Tony winner Garry Hynes’ visionary staging of an undervalued Irish classic were the domestic highlights of this year’s Dublin Theater Festival (Sept. 29-Oct. 11).

The risky choice of running Robert Lepage’s “The Far Side of the Moon” for nearly the full two weeks of the fest to capitalize on word of mouth paid off: Lepage’s autobiographical story of loss and recovery set against the background of the space race, now featuring Quebec actor Yves Jacques in the solo role originated by Lepage, sold out.

Fest director Fergus Linehan estimates total B.O. at 800,000 Irish pounds ($932,400), with average ticket prices at $23. The overall budget was $2.3 million, up from last year’s $1.75 million.

The 9-year-old ESB Dublin Fringe Festival (Sept. 22-Oct. 11), meanwhile, hit new levels of public awareness.

It did so thanks to a novelty-filled program of more than 140 events and a unique focal point in the Famous Spiegeltent, a traveling performance arena dating from 1920s Belgium that here housed talks and gigs in the daytime and evenings, as well as a popular latenight club.

Director Vallejo Gantner says Fringe attendance was approximately 35,000, a 40% increase on last year.

Keegan-Dolan’s “Giselle,” co-produced by Fabulous Beast Dance Theater and the Dublin Fest, takes the bare outline of the classic romantic ballet and resets it in a fictional town in contemporary rural Ireland replete with incest, gossip and sexual repression.

The tragic story is leavened by bawdy humor, a free-flowing concept of gender (nine of the 10 cast members are men, most of whom swap between male and female roles) and a refreshing internationalism — the performers, who hail from several continents, all speak in their natural accents. The piece has a flavor of the American Wild West: The focal point of the town’s social life is, of all things, line dancing.

Keegan-Dolan’s sexy and multitalented cast rose to the piece’s multiple challenges: a first half of storytelling theater, an ironically straight-faced choral rendering of a hokey Irish ballad and a beautifully realized final dance scene in the graveyard between the dead Giselle and her bereaved lover.

With an excellent electronic score from Phillip Feeney and pared-back designs by Sophie Charalambous and Adam Silverman, this “Giselle” is a high-water mark for the Irish performing arts; touring plans are under way.

“Sharon’s Grave” is the second production in as many years by Hynes and Druid Theater Co. of the work of the late Kerryman John B. Keane.

Along with last year’s brilliant “Sive,” it provides vital proof that Keane’s name belongs in the top ranks of Irish playwrights. Keane exposes the roots of the Irish obsession with land ownership by tapping into the paganism and Celtic mythology that was repressed for centuries under British rule; too often, however, his plays come across in production as melodramatic hokum.

Hynes does Keane justice by taking him seriously: Here the love story between spinster Trassie Conlee and wandering thatcher Peader Minogue is as simple and moving as the vision of her grasping cousin Dinzie, lame since birth and carried around the bog on the back of his ape-like brother Jack, is fabulously grotesque.

A top-drawer creative team and an excellent cast mixing well-known (Tom Hickey, Catherine Walsh, David Herlihy, Frankie McCafferty) and emerging actors helped deliver a production that upheld and advanced Druid’s standards of excellence.

The Abbey and Gate theaters both served up disappointingly under-realized new plays from two of the nation’s best-regarded older playwrights.

Superb performances by Sara Kestleman, Eleanor Methven and Justine Mitchell could not make up for serious second-act problems in Thomas Kilroy’s “The Shape of Metal,” which tackles questions about artistic and personal responsibility through the story of an aging sculptress battling with memories of her disappeared daughter.

Brian Friel tackles similar themes in “Performances,” a strange short play in which a fictional contemporary graduate student confronts the dead composer Leos Janacek (the excellent Ion Caramitru) about his late-in-life relationship with a younger married woman, as the Alba String Quartet plays excerpts from the composition she inspired, “Intimate Letters.”

Several provocative entries in the fest’s international program divided critics and audiences.

These included a pared-back and coked-up “Hamlet” from Spain’s Calixto Bieito; a Belgian opera for soprano, actress and videoscreen based on Roddy Doyle’s novel about domestic violence, “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors”; and Rina Yerushalmi’s re-reading of Greek tragedy through the lens of the contemporary Middle East, “Mythos.”

Fringe hits included “Soap!,” a 10-episode live soap opera with four actors playing dozens of parts, from the Cork-based Playgroup; Tiny Ninja Theater’s hilariously earnest, 40-minute-long “Macbeth,” played by little figurines manipulated by New York actor Dov Weinstein; and the thrilling “La Haine,” a screening of the controversial French film in a nightclub setting with a live soundtrack by the Asian Dub Foundation.

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