On the evening of St. Patrick’s Day 2006, I sat in Galway’s Druid Theatre amongst a mixed crowd of sober Irish people sporting shamrocks and hungover American graduate students. We were, after a day of parades and pub carousing, settling in to see the first-ever preview performance of The Walworth Farce. Our not-drunk professor informed us it was by the up-and-coming Irish playwright Enda Walsh. It should be good.
Two hours later, the whole audience was feeling the effects of being run over by a play that began as a madcap farce and evolved into a perfectly paced family tragedy that was just believable enough to be absolutely devastating. We headed back out to the pubs, not to celebrate Ireland’s national pastime, but to drink away the sorrows of its theater.
Five years later, fellow Washington City Paper theater critic Chris Klimek and I sat in Studio Theatre’s upstairs space, a venue not too much smaller than the Druid, on press day for The Walworth Farce’s D.C. premiere. Call me sentimental, but I’d like to think the play’s journey from Galway to D.C. parallels the international rise of contemporary Irish drama. The odds are against modest theater projects from a European city of 75,000 stocking Washington, D.C.’s stages, yet Walworth has now played in theaters across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Great Britain.
There’s always Irish theater in D.C. Two of the more robust local companies, Scena and Keegan, make producing Irish plays an annual prerogative. But it’s fair to say that this year, everyone wanted in. The Druid sent not one but two touring productions here, and the Gate and the Abbey, Dublin’s two internationally known theaters, made appearances. Half a dozen D.C. theaters staged works by Irish playwrights. Bear in mind: Ireland has two million fewer residents than the D.C. metro area.
You don’t need a graduate-level course in Irish drama to appreciate the theater on District stages in 2011, but I’d like to think it helped me better understand a few of the following:
- The New Ireland: An Enda Walsh Festival. New artistic director David Muse spun Studio Theatre’s trio of Walsh plays as a new commitment to producing more contemporary international theater. The local cast of The Walworth Farce, led by Ted van Griethuysen, was as good as the quartet I saw in Galway. Writing in these pages, Klimek was equally impressed with the Druid’s production of Penelope that Studio hosted. He was a bit less enamored with The New Electric Ballroom.
- In 2008, the Kennedy Center crammed the Druid’s touring production of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World into the Terrace Theater. In 2011, it sold out the larger Eisenhower with the company’s excellent production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, a 1996 effort by Martin McDonough. Both were directed by Hynes, and both are set on Ireland’s remote Aran Islands, located a choppy 45-minute ferry ride away from Galway. McDonough wrote just as good a play about the same eccentric islanders, 90 years later.
- Playboy was first performed at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907. Fast forward a century: In March, the Clarice Smith Center for Performing Arts welcomed the company’s production of Terminus, a dark new drama by Mark O’Rowe. (Full disclosure: I teach at the University of Maryland, and regret that I didn’t actually get to see this one.)
There’s a whole subgenre of Irish plays set in bars. Playboy is one; Conor McPherson’s The Weir is another. In what made for an interesting theater marketing smackdown last winter, Keegan and Scena both staged this play, about regulars in a rural Irish pub. I can’t speak for Scena—two Weirs in one month is a lot, even for red-haired avowed fan of Irish theater—but Keegan set up a convincing bar in Dupont Circle, the kind of place where folks come to tell ghost stories that all the Guinness in the world can’t erase.
Not all Irish theater that came through town this year was good theater. That guy George Bernard Shaw? The one who wrote 60-some plays and has a theater festival named after him? He was born in Ireland. He wasn’t proud of his humble beginnings, though, and he wouldn’t have been proud of Constellation Theatre’s amateurish production of the Arms and the Man. Likewise, Oscar Wilde was not done much service by Shakespeare’s Theatre’s overly fussy, not-funny production of An Ideal Husband.
But Shakespeare redeemed itself before the year was over. Earlier this month, just in time to make several D.C. critics’ top-ten lists, the Gate sent us John Hurt starring in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. It “hurts so good,” was Klimek’s kicker. I prefer to think of Last Tape as the most heartbreaking show ever written for one man, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and a bunch of bananas. Which is to say, one of the most heartbreaking one-man shows ever written.