Review by Kathleen Campion
In an Irish pub a lively game of darts is to be expected. A high complement is: “Nice grouping,”…that is, acknowledgment that a player’s darts have landed closely together near the center. In a sense, that’s what we have in Three Small Irish Masterpieces.
W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge formed a grouping of artists, and one might argue, patriots. None is known to have taken up arms in the various Irish resistance efforts. Still, they formed the core of the Literary Resistance Playwrights during the so-called, Celtic Twilight.
They believed Ireland needed its own stories and songs, its own plays, reflecting Celtic life on their much contested island, to define and refine a distinct Irish culture. So, they had a lot to say.
The “tasting menu,” of three one-acts born, in the cauldron of early twentieth-century fervor in Dublin, focuses on three separate slices of that culture.
Yeats’ and Lady Gregory collaborated on The Pot of Broth. The piece is based on an oft-told tale that dates to the mists of time — a clever rogue convinces a greedy housewife that his “magic” stone will fill her pot with broth or wine. Yeats’ s interest in the occult may play out here but in watching David O’Hara (the Tramp) “bring” the blarney, it is easy to own that verbal gift as a time-honored Irish tradition.
Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon also relies on an existing piece — in this case, a ballad of the same name — associated with several political uprisings. She puts a fine edge on the political divisions, suggesting that much of the population was satisfied with British rule. Of course, many were not. She sets her drama in the conscience of a single sergeant, charged with catching an escaped political prisoner, but conflicted about his own decisions. The piece of Irish sensibility she memorializes could date to the 1867 Fenian Rising or even anticipate the 1916 Easter Rebellion.
The third piece, Riders to the Sea, is by far the grimmest. John Millington Synge tells the tale of Maurya, her two daughters and six sons. As the play opens, five of the six sons have gone to sea and drowned, and the last is headed out the door to embrace the same fate. This piece paints a dark picture of life on a rugged coast. What’s more, Synge showcases the subtle paganism that underscores the perfunctory Catholicism of the rural Irish. It’s intriguing on that level, but bloody depressing on every other.
So, all in all, these “masterpieces” serve as a master class in the efforts of the Literary Resistance Playwrights. That you can collect this opportunity at the Irish Rep on W 22nd is appealing. One caveat: with few exceptions, the production feels representational; that is, the characters stand for this or that and don’t easily break through to a realized, distinct identity.
There is music, so real voices (no mikes) and real instruments. Some is lyrical, some political, some keening. As there is no intermission, the musical breaks work well and slide us gently from one piece to the next.
One caution for the claustrophobic — this downstairs space is very cramped and sight lines a bit challenged. An optimist might see that as magnifying the “hovel” environment on the stage.
These one-acts feel like old friends on the one hand, and a tad stale on the other. There are the sly laugh lines as Yeats’ s scoundrel slips the chicken in the pot. There is the high-minded rhetoric of Lady Gregory’s political prisoner certain his countryman will protect him. And, there is the heavy-handed irony of Synge’s “hand-me-the-holy-water-Nora” matriarch’s speech as she anoints her last drowned son. Period drama — even written by these masters — seems to demand more indulgence than I could muster the night I saw Three Small Irish Masterpieces.
Three Small Irish Masterpieces
The Pot of Broth — By William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory; directed by Charlotte Moore
WITH: Colin Lane (John Coneely), Clare O’Malley (Sibby Coneelly), David O’Hara (A Tramp).
The Rising of the Moon — By Lady Gregory; directed by Charlotte Moore
WITH: Colin Lane (Sergeant), David O’Hara (Policeman), Adam Petherbridge (A Ragged Man).
Riders to the Sea — By John Millington Synge; directed by Charlotte Moore
WITH: Terry Donnelly (Maurya), Adam Petherbridge (Bartley), Clare O’Malley (Nora), Jennifer McVey (Cathleen)
Musicians: Adam Petherbridge, Jennifer McVey, Clare O’Malley.
Designed by James Morgan; costumes by Linda Fisher; lighting by Michael Gottlieb. Presented by the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22 Street in Manhattan. Through April 22. Running time 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission.