'Hedda' hops over homegrown fare at fest

It was another mixed-bag year for the Dublin Theater Festival.

Having taken flak in 2005 for not programming enough Irish work, a.d. Don Shipley stuck his neck out this year with three new shows from independent Irish companies — and two of them served up half-baked fare.

Among visiting productions at the fest, which ran Sept. 28-Oct. 14, the Berlin-based Schaubunhe’s Brooklyn Academy of Music-bound “Hedda Gabler” brought critics, auds and industry together in an unprecedented outpouring of enthusiasm.

But other imported work seemed oddly programmed — three hours of Gorky in Russian (the Omsk State Theater’s “Vacationers”) in a 1,200-seat venue was never going to be a good idea. Still others didn’t meet expectations (4D Arts’ over-technologized “La Tempete,” also headed for this year’s Next Wave fest at BAM; and Shared Experience’s tepid “Orestes”). And another just lowered the tone — two weeks of the commercially viable “The Exonerated” with B-list American stars in a subsidized festival?

Thomas Ostermeier’s relentlessly contemporary “Hedda” mesmerizes, from the first incongruous strains of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” through the final slow revolve of Jan Pappelbaum’s magnificent set. In Katharina Schuttler’s complex portrayal, Hedda is a size-zero coquette addicted to power games, but bored with how easily her male prey — here played as self-absorbed academic poseurs — are won over. Following the company’s 2002 “A Doll’s House,” the confidence of Ostermeier’s Schaubuhne team in renovating the Ibsen canon is breathtaking.

Strongest notices for homegrown work went to rising star Selina Cartmell’s highly theatrical staging of “Festen,” the director and her young creative posse bringing a welcome gust of fresh energy into the Gate Theater.

The Corn Exchange offered up a funny and poignant day in the life of contemporary Dublin, using its trademark commedia style, in the well-received “Everyday.”

In its downstairs space, the Abbey Theater played its part in supporting Irish writing with “Alice Trilogy,” a newly rewritten version of veteran scribe Tom Murphy’s latest (which preemed last year at London’s Royal Court). The playwright directed Jane Brennan as the titular character at three crucial points in her unhappy life. But, however likable a presence, Brennan proved herself incapable of the emotional depths and stylistic variety required.

Stuart Carolan’s “Empress of India” continued to divide critics and auds in its transfer to the Abbey mainstage. Radio talkshow phone lines were buzzing with matrons shocked at the play’s bad language, though some auds, particularly youthful ones, were drawn in by its blasphemous energy. For this reviewer, it’s a bombastic loss of form from the otherwise industry-leading Druid Theater Company.

The usually excellent Rough Magic also was off the mark with “The Bonefire,” an ill-judged satire of Northern Irish sectarianism by Rosemary Jenkinson.

All fest flaws were forgiven, however, during an unexpectedly ecstatic four-hour love-in to Leonard Cohen at the 6,500-seat Point Depot. No one could quite figure out what a tribute to the iconic Canadian songster was doing in a theater festival; but questioning melted away as artist after top-name artist — Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton, Laurie Anderson, Teddy Thompson, Antony and more — gave selfless and inventive performances of Cohen classics and B-sides.

The fest took a major financial risk in programming the Cohen show, “Came So Far for Beauty,” previously seen in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Sydney; and Brighton, England. But local music lovers packed the house for two nights running. It will go down as the Canuck Shipley’s Irish legacy.

Now, after programming only two Dublin seasons, Shipley is off to co-helm the Stratford Festival in Ontario, and the Dublin fest is again on the market for a new supremo. Shipley’s short stay has proven it takes years to get the measure of the Irish market — and the balance of this festival — right. An experienced local hire seems the fest’s best bet as it faces its 50th anniversary season next year.

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