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Keegan is taking another run at The Hostage, Brendan Behan’s 1958 tale of a Dublin whorehouse, its manifold boozy denizens, and the chipper British soldier who is held there more or less against his will while the IRA decides his fate. By all accounts, the company’s 2003 staging out at the cavernous Clark Street Playhouse was a hit. This remount, in the markedly cozier space on Church Street, boasts the same director (Mark A. Rhea), along with a handful of returning principals, most notably Dave Jourdan as Pat, the preternaturally amiable master of the house.
Recently, Keegan’s enjoyed its greatest success with shows that embrace a bare-bones sensibility—last year’s Mojo Mickybo and Alone It Stands being two lean, energetic examples of the form. So it’s encouraging to see the company succeed once again with The Hostage, a show whose theatrical bones are anything but bare.
In fact, they’re pretty much covered in gristle: Behan wrote an evening of theater that is long on charm and gregariousness, but, given its 18 cast members and nearly three-hour running time, The Hostage doesn’t so much move as sprawl. It’s a full freaking hour before the first plot point really arrives, in the form of the titular hostage (Joe Baker, who manages to make his character’s callowness agreeable).
Under Rhea’s direction, the fourth wall comes in for repeated abuse, but it never breaks as utterly as the absurdist Behan likely intended it to. Maybe it’s just built of tougher stuff these days, and the simple act of turning downstage to address the audience has become too familiar to knock it down.
Even so, Keegan’s production seems eager to downplay the running meta-commentary in Behan’s script, especially if a crackin’ tune will do the work better. Characters introduce themselves and advance their storylines via mournful ballads, exuberant jigs, and ribald music-hall numbers. As they do so, Rhea has them acknowledge the Church Street audience but pitch their performances squarely at their fellows onstage. It’s a small shift in emphasis but an interesting one, because it serves to reinforce the onstage reality, not undercut it as you—and Behan—might expect it to. Breaking into song is no pomo theatrical trope, Rhea seems to be saying, but simply part of everyday life in this house. Music unites these characters and gives them solace, and it does so in ways that poverty and politics can’t touch.
Reinforcing that shared musical bond does good structural work, too: It keeps the quirk-addled characters of Behan’s shaggy, shambling, discursive play from spiraling out into their own orbits. When those characters include Bible-thumpers, glittery drag queens, dotty ex-generals, fanatical IRA soldiers, and strumpets of all sizes and shapes, gathering them all together for a chorus of “Drunken Sailor” now and again is just good HR management, really.
Speaking of good management: Dave Jourdan gives full, three-dimensional life to Pat, the jovial patriarch at the center of the action, but it’s his work as the production’s musical director that’s responsible for the evening’s biggest payoff: a stirring, full-throated rendition of “The Auld Triangle” by the entire cast. Yow.
The thing that makes that finale so satisfying—besides Dan Martin’s lighting, which suffuses the onstage tableau with a touch of the divine—is how slyly Jourdan builds to it. Prior to that moment, the evening’s songs and dances have been marked by a sense of casualness and spontaneity. When that song begins, however, you realize that something has changed: The phrasing is clipped and polished, the voices blend with a new and deeply euphonious precision.
So when Jourdan makes that request on behalf of the cast at the second intermission, take him up on it: Buy a Guinness or Smithwick’s in the lobby and leave it at the foot of the stage for them to polish off during Act 3. They earn every gulp.