We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
J.M. Synge was a poet of a playwright, and his The Playboy of the Western World is a muscular ballad of a play, a vernacular ode to the Irish peasantry of the Aran Isles—their heroes, their language, the occasional wildness of both. Mark A. Rhea and the Keegan Theatre make a fine case for the play’s enduring worth as a piece of theater, but it’s hard nowadays for an audience to grasp why Dublin erupted in riots when the Abbey Theatre premiered the piece back in 1907.
For that, you need a little history: It was nationalists, most of them Catholics, who objected to what they saw as the Anglo-Irish Synge’s critical and condescending depiction of his characters—colorful country folk who speak in anything but plain language. Pegeen Mike Flaherty (Helen Pafumi) and the rustics who frequent her da’s scruffy shebeen discourse instead in a heightened, almost overlyrical version of the lilting English spoken anywhere Gaelic grammar has applied its pressures. And what transpires when their lives are interrupted by the fugitive Christy Mahon (Carlos Bustamante), who’s killed his abusive father and fled to their quiet corner of the islands, has a lot to say about how Synge sees the Irish and the unhappy state of their society.
And that state isn’t much to celebrate, at least from one perspective: This is a desperately poor place where the strong men flee for distant America, where the men who remain are the feeble and the fainthearted, like Pegeen’s intended, the prosperous but priest-ridden Sean Keough (Mike Kozemchak). Their women and their drink dominate them, and when a sturdy young creature who’s had spine enough to commit patricide stumbles into their midst, what happens is an exercise in convoluted myth-making and skewed hero-worship. You can see how a partisan might take offense at the suggestion that Christy represents some sort of savior to the poor blighted Aran folk, that their values are sufficiently gnarled and their souls starved enough to make him a man of great consequence.
Absent that backstory, though, anyone encountering the play today will find what seems a mostly affectionate, if exaggerated, portrait of a kooky rural population, along with a perfectly respectable lament for what’s apparently a pretty dire cultural and economic situation. The contextual nuances come from the study guide, not the show, despite Rhea’s sure and sensitive staging and the fine performances at the production’s core. Bustamante, in particular, makes an immensely agreeable opportunist of a Christy, vulnerable and a little frightened under the growing self-regard his new coterie of admirers kindle in him; the performance is confident, physical, and a joy to watch. Pafumi isn’t quite his equal, but she meets his assurance with no little fire and a certain sense of the neediness that must lurk under her character’s brusque, brawling public face.
Keegan’s production, for a company that found itself suddenly homeless a few weeks ago, feels surprisingly substantial, with a sensitive lighting design and a sturdy, quasi-realistic set (by George Lucas and Stefan M. Gibson, respectively) that evoke both comfort and its opposite—perfect for Synge’s picture of a desolate land with an unshakable hold on its people. The play, though—moving as it can be, it probably can’t paint that picture, in all its vivid darks and greens, on the unprimed canvas of a modern audience.
I’d like to think I’d be the last guy to discourage anybody who’s damn fool enough to spend his money and break his heart producing theater, but honestly, some ideas are just better left unpursued. That all-male production of The Women? Wouldn’t actually be all that hysterical, even if the Luce estate didn’t sue you senseless. And Albee in the ’burbs—what good is a merciless dissection if the targets remain oblivious?
Costume drama on the cheap— now, there’s one you wouldn’t think you’d have to warn anybody against. Alas, here comes the Fountainhead Theatre to disabuse us of that hopeful notion with the sartorial cock-up that is its wildly misguided mounting of An Ideal Husband. Leave aside, for the moment, the inconsequential issues of mortifying performances and inept direction, and let pass for now the piddling matter of the distracting sound design, with its suggestion that Mrs. Cheveley has brought the Staatsoper strings with her from Vienna to provide a cheerful musical accompaniment for her nefarious plot. What I’d like to know is this: Who the hell picked out that blinding scarlet satin evening gown with all the rhinestones? And that excruciatingly ill-fitting tux? And has the perpetrator been soundly beaten?
I suppose there’s room for argument about whether the rarefied comedy of Oscar Wilde can honestly be described as “costume drama”—it’s not Merchant-Ivory territory, precisely. Still, if you’re going to be hanging about in drawing rooms with Lord Goring and the family Chiltern, you’re going to have to drop a few dollars on threads. Wilde’s Goring is a mischievous dandy (with, as it turns out, a surprisingly moral soul and a big, soft, sentimental streak), but Fountainhead’s Goring is Jim Jorgensen, a tall gentleman whose sepulchral qualities are unfortunately emphasized in this production by the appalling evening wear, which according to the playbill seems to be the responsibility of a personage named Suzanne Maloney.
Goring’s nemesis is the aforementioned Mrs. Cheveley, a British expat who’s popped in from Vienna to perpetrate a blackmail scheme involving a leading politician whose vote on a canal scheme is critical to her fiscal future. She’s a deliciously wicked, eminently understandable, positively sexy creature you almost want to root for; perhaps aware of this dangerous possibility, Fountainhead Artistic Director Charlotte Akin plays her in this production as a crass, transparent schemer without a scrap of individual humanity or discernible appeal. This Mrs. Cheveley is the sort of person who walks into rooms and scans them to see who’s there worth talking to, who keeps an eye cocked over the shoulder of the lady she’s talking to in hopes of spotting someone more interesting. It’s no wonder everyone loathes her, even before she shows up at Goring’s house in that red getup, apparently on her way to the working girls’ annual ball.
Wilde, as I mentioned, wrote comedies, and they’re delicate things—which is doubtless why director Leslie A. Kobylinski and the Fountainhead company approach An Ideal Husband like longshoremen with a cargo of manatees. I’ve seen worse readings of better plays, but rarely, and at my therapist’s urging I’ve tried to block them out. There are two or three decent performances here—the generally expressive Nanna Ingvarsson, a reliably delicious villainess, plays satisfyingly against type as the destructively virtuous Lady Chiltern, and Danny Ladmirault makes her poor, fallible husband a stolid enough fellow. Danielle Davy’s pixieish Mabel (if such a tall creature may properly be called pixieish) can be delightful when she’s not trying too hard to knot Lord Goring ’round her little finger. And the veteran Richard Mancini pulls off a few gruff laughs as Goring’s crusty old Establishmentarian of a father.
The central twosome, though—if only there were such a thing as theater police, something might be done about this ruthless bit of character assassination. Akin preens and peers around invisible corners; Jorgensen simpers and leers and waggles his eyebrows at every other line. I suspect Wilde, were he about, would risk a fourth trial to put a stop to the gross indecency of it all.CP