Joy though it is to hear the language of J.M. Synge caressed by the silver tongues of Irish players, this mannered Abbey Theater production -- helmed by its artistic director Ben Barnes and on a six-city U.S. tour marking the company's centenary -- is too weird for words. Flirting with just about every style but comedy, Barnes thrusts Synge's achingly gorgeous lyric masterpiece into an alienating Expressionist framework that drains it of the folkloric imagination that Synge called "fiery and magnificent and tender."
Joy though it is to hear the language of J.M. Synge caressed by the silver tongues of Irish players, this mannered Abbey Theater production — helmed by its artistic director Ben Barnes and on a six-city U.S. tour marking the company’s centenary — is too weird for words. Flirting with just about every style but comedy, Barnes thrusts Synge’s achingly gorgeous lyric masterpiece into an alienating Expressionist framework that drains it of the folkloric imagination that Synge called “fiery and magnificent and tender.” While the somber tone keeps sentimentalism at bay, this dreary interpretation robs the piece of its poetry and throws the Abbey players off their ensemble stride.There’s a not-so-funny irony at work here. While most foreign productions of Synge’s dark comedy overplay the surface folk humor and neglect the political subtext (of a peasant culture ground down by poverty and superstition), Ireland’s own national theater so overstates the subtext that there’s barely a hint of the central theme (of that same peasantry asserting its humanity through its poetic imagination). Can nobody walk and chew gum at the same time? With its expansive stage and well-outfitted tech facilities, the spanking-new $15 million Skirball Center is more than hospitable to the avant-garde production design, which features solid-looking walls that alternately come together to suggest the rough interior of a village shebeen on the coast of County Mayo — and open up to some bleak infinity beyond. In the unscripted role of a “bellman,” or town crier, Simon O’Gorman strikes the production’s ponderous Expressionist tone by thrusting himself into the action at every turn, like some fuss-budget stage manager. With the presence of this intruder hovering over them (in an outlandish outfit of bowler hat and striped shirt that makes him look like a cosmic clown), it’s no wonder the villagers who stumble into Michael James’ pub are more self-conscious than they need to be. Once the bellman fades into the woodwork, the characters more or less get on with the story — about a wild-eyed stranger who captures the hearts of the locals with a woolly tale of having murdered his abusive father. But the self-awareness lingers, and there is little fun to be had in watching the wretched Christy Mahon (Tom Vaughan Lawlor) puff himself up into the bold romantic hero everyone wants him to be. Although Christy is meant to be something of a buffoon, he is also supposed to be a charmer — charming enough, anyway, to win the love of the smart and sensible heroine, Pegeen Mike (Cathy Belton). But this Pegeen is a sourpuss, and this Christy bears an unfortunate resemblance to a young Frankenstein’s monster. Dirty, disheveled and staggering around the stage in clodhopper boots and godawful-ugly haberdashery, this clumsy lout would charm no woman. Barnes’ overly gloomy depiction of Synge’s beauty-starved rustics takes its toll on everyone except Shawn Keogh (Andrew Bennett), the awkward young farmer who is desperately in love with his cousin Pegeen. The lovesick Shawn is already so melancholy (and so exquisitely sensitive he “can hear the cows breathing and sighing in the stillness of the air”) that Bennett shrewdly uses the additional misery to burnish the lad’s comic image. There is one character, though, who thrives and indeed flourishes in the darker light of this production. The Widow Quin, who is in a position to burst Christy’s heroic bubble when she meets his bloodied but undead father, is generally caricatured as a man-hungry old bag making ludicrous attempts to woo Christy for herself. In Olwen Fouere’s eye-opening perf, however, the Widow Quin is a gorgeous broad with long yellow hair and a womanly lust for “the gallant hairy fellows” who drift out of her grasp on their way to the sea. No comic relief she, but a woman who is willing to bargain for what she wants and holds her chin up when the fair deal she offers is rejected. Although it hardly justifies this misguided production, Fouere’s performance is a gift.