Monday, May 26, 2014

The Playboy of the Western World—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

The Fighting Irish

This classic comedy from the Irish writer, J. M. Synge, is directed by Dámaso Rodriguez (Artist Rep.’s Artistic Director) and runs through June 22nd.  It plays at their space at SW Alder St. & 16th Ave.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-241-1278.

It seems, from Synge’s point of view, the Irish are always up for a good drink, a dirty fight, or a tumble in the hay.  Gone, from this story, is the magic inherent in fairies and the “little people” of Irish lore.  This play, at the time it was staged around 1900, purportedly caused riots in Erin’s Isle, probably because of the promiscuity it promoted.  It has a kinship with the book/film Tom Jones.  Now these kind of stories would be rated PG.  Oh, how times and attitudes have changed.

The story concerns Christopher, or Christy-man (Chris Murray), the title character of the play.  He arrives at a Public House in County Mayo, a stranger in this part of the Green Isle, looking for refuge.  The House is run by Pegeen (Amy Newman) and her father, Michael (Allen Nause).  She offers him ale, a bit of food, a warm fire to sleep by, and a sympathetic ear.  It seems he has killed his own father and fears the law is after him.  And since the village folk seem to have no love for the local force, she agrees to give him shelter.  He also seems to be a bit of a flirt and, being unmarried herself, Pegeen takes an instant liking to him.

But it seems that she is unofficially betrothed to the lumbering Shawn (Isaac Lamb) and he is willing to go so far as to bribe Christy-man to leave.  Her father and his cronies, Philly (Michael Mendelson) and Jimmy (Jeb Berrier) have always assumed, too, that this big ox would be her beau, since he may be the only eligible game in town for her.  And the flighty, single girls of the village, Susan (Rebecca Ridenour), Honor (Lissie Huff) and Sara (Brenan Dwyer) might also have other ideas for this newcomer to their fair village.

But the only other serious contender for his affections is the Widow Quin (Jill Van Velzer), who had purportedly been responsible for the death of her own husband.  All is up in the air as to who will win this prize specimen.  That is, until a mysterious old man, another stranger, appears in the village, hunting Christy-man.  All bets are off, as the plot takes a dangerous turn now.  Can’t tell you any more or it would ruin a few surprises in the story.

The set (Jack O’Brien) is absolutely stunning.  The recreation of the Public House from that place and time period is very intricate and yet lends ample space for action/movement.  Well done.  And the lighting (Kristeen Willis Crosser) adds some lovely colors to the background, as well as depicting the moods of the play.  And Nancy Hill’s costumes are terrific, capturing the poverty of the times.

Rodriguez has put his cast through some difficult paces in creating this story and it shows in the use of the space and the fine performances.  And the fight at the end is amazing, choreographed by Jonathan Cole.  It was grand to again see Nause and Mendelson, icons in Portland theatre, onstage.  As always, they ramp the professionalism of the production up a notch by their very presence.

The entire cast is very believable.  Murray is clever in the way he is slyly manipulates the many women in the village.  A solid performance.  Newman is wonderful as the strong-willed daughter.  Easily holding her own in this township but needing that extra comfort of a mate, a complex performance, well-done.  Lamb is fine as the good-hearted but none-too-bright suitor.

And Van Velzer as the conniving and not-too-subtle Widow, would make a good politician.  She knows what she wants and knows how to get it.  Well played.  But Geisslinger is a dynamo!  Once onstage, he never lets go of the audience’s attentions.  He growls his fierce vocals, gyrates his stocky body and powers through this performance with the weight and determination of a steamroller.  A stunning portrayal!

The only caution I would give, is that the accents (Mary McDonald-Lewis, Dialect Director), although very accurate, I’m sure, are so thick at times, that individual lines get lost.  “The Play’s the thing…” that is important, so I would sacrifice a wee bit of the accent and phraseology at times, for clarity.  Bless the actors, though, they are so good and believable at presenting the play, with their specific gestures and emotions, that the general story is understood.  This hard work by all has not gone unnoticed.  But, honestly, I would have liked to understand more of the dialogue.

I would recommend this show.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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