Broadway was virtually colonized by the Irish this spring as the near-simultaneous arrival of distinctive plays by Brian Friel, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh provided a vibrant testament to the country's racing theatrical pulse.
Broadway was virtually colonized by the Irish this spring as the near-simultaneous arrival of distinctive plays by Brian Friel, Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh provided a vibrant testament to the country’s racing theatrical pulse. So it’s especially fitting that the season is capped by “DruidSynge” as the opening event of the 2006 Lincoln Center Festival. Grouping together all six plays by John Millington Synge in a marathon staging, this Herculean undertaking by director Garry Hynes and Galway’s Druid Theater Company is an achievement both monumental and vitally alive, rooted in theatrical history yet defiantly contemporary.
The plays embrace misery and jubilation, folklore and farce, singing lyricism and rude irreverence, aching sorrow and riotous vitality. But what’s most remarkable about seeing the four corrosive comedies and two tragedies in one sitting is less their fluid cohesion (with one exception) than the sense gained of the profound influence Synge has had on generations of playwrights.
It’s impossible to watch Hynes’ vigorous staging of “The Playboy of the Western World” without thinking of McPherson’s gabby pub dwellers, their thirst for a drop matched by their receptiveness to a tall tale. The spirited rejection of accepted norms in rollicking anticlerical comedy “The Tinker’s Wedding” reveals Synge’s handprints all over the hot-tempered peasant folks of McDonagh’s lonesome west. Perhaps most of all, Beckett’s tragicomic vagabonds in an unaccommodating world have clear antecedents in the blind beggars of Synge’s comedy of disillusionment, “The Well of the Saints.”
Synge’s legacy extended beyond Ireland, too. In the elegiac drama “Riders to the Sea,” in which an island widow anticipates the drowning of the last of her six sons, almost willing it to happen as a liberation from her anxiety for their safety (“It’s a great rest I’ll have now”), Synge anticipates Lorca. Opening with this searing half-hour jolt of embittered desolation allows Hynes to bookend “DruidSynge” with death, its constant presence underscored throughout the cycle by the timber planks for the drowned sailor’s coffin propped against the back wall of Francis O’Connor’s starkly evocative set.
The weak point comes at the opposite end of the program, in Synge’s final play, “Deirdre of the Sorrows.” Based on an Irish legend and written while the playwright was dying of cancer at 37, this mournful account of a young woman who resists becoming queen in order to be with her doomed lover is such a stylized, solemnly operatic departure from the raucously naturalistic comedies sandwiched between it and “Riders” — with declamatory oration supplanting musical, living speech — that it somewhat deflates the enterprise.
The decision to display Synge’s portrait onstage at the close of the play also seems an out-of-character flourish in a production marked by its earthy spontaneity and its outright refusal to be trapped into tributary reverence.
Still, one miss out of six is no disgrace for either playwright or director. And the complex heroine of “Deirdre” has a concrete connection within the body of Synge’s work, characterized by unpredictable women constantly bucking against the burdens of their lot at the hands of blathering men. “No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied,” says the aggrieved Maurya at the end of “Riders,” in one of many embodiments of women’s endurance in Synge’s work.
Pegeen and the Widow Quin, battling for the attentions of self-aggrandizing Christy in “Playboy”; the indomitable would-be bride and her boozing mother-in-law in “The Tinker’s Wedding”; Nora, the belligerent farmer’s wife of “In the Shadow of the Glen,” who blithely leaves both her husband and her young pretender for a stranger, for no reason other than his “fine bit of talk” — such a gallery would seem ripe for feminist reinterpretation. Thankfully, Hynes’ muscular direction — expressively physical rather than intellectual — resists any trace of revisionism, honoring the fiercely individual spirits of Synge’s women without falsely ennobling them.
Digging their feet deeply into the dirt that carpets the stage, the Druid company bite into their multiple roles with the limber give-and-take of a consummate ensemble. Just as there’s nothing quaint and romanticized in the privileged Synge’s channeling of the voices of Irish peasantry, there’s nothing timidly nostalgic in the approach of Hynes and her cast to plays perhaps most notable for the ferocity of their characters’ exchange of insults.
The production is elevated by the actors’ binding overall achievement, but a handful of players deserve special mention. Simone Kirby is a cantankerous delight in “The Tinker’s Wedding,” braying about her right to be married until she wises up to the shortcomings of so-called respectability. Sarah-Jane Drummey’s teasing insouciance invigorates “The Well of the Saints.” Catherine Walsh is a feisty, intelligent Pegeen; and Derry Power is a riot as her Guinness-soused father, struggling to perform a marriage ceremony or fashion a noose, in “The Playboy of the Western World.”
Aaron Monaghan’s astonishing range is shown in five significant roles. His Christy Mahon in “Playboy” is a clueless lad whose craftiness and confidence are discovered by degrees, while the actor’s inventive skills with physical comedy get a workout in “The Tinker’s Wedding” and “The Well of the Saints.” Eamon Morrissey makes a wicked cartoon of the ghostly farmer in “In the Shadow of the Glen,” swimming around near-naked in a cheesecloth nightshirt, feigning death to test his wife’s fidelity; and he’s superb in “The Well of the Saints” as the blind man given sight only to continue coveting all the things he’s imagined.
But honors go to Marie Mullen, who commands attention whenever she’s onstage. Measuring out brittleness and warmth, sly humor, wisdom and cynicism so sharp it cuts, she builds formidable characters out of Maurya, the Widow Quin, the bickering blind wife in “The Well” and the mouthy old drunk whose loyalty is only to the bottle in “The Tinker’s Wedding.”
O’Connor’s steep set slightly muffles the acoustics, which, coupled with the thick accents and odd rhythms of the dialogue, made complete comprehension a challenge at times on opening day at the Gerald Lynch Theater. But “DruidSynge” is a transporting, full-immersion experience, the assuredness of the creatives’ grasp never faltering as the plays conjure a people and a culture both of a time and timeless.