Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dancing On The Edge

Dancing at Lughnasa: by Brian Friel, Directed by Sheila Daniels, Through 5 December, 2010.

Many (many) years ago I had the chance to see this play at the Milwaukee Rep, but demurred. Instead the Lovely Bride took a Good Friend to it and enjoyed it thoroughly, such that it went into the category of "things you really should have seen" that would pop up every so often in our conversations in the years since.

I, for my part, felt little guilt about passing up on this opportunity, as the play had been presented to me as being a) Irish, and b) about five sisters. For the first case, I am only merely tolerant of plays in Irish brogue - it takes about ten minutes for my ears to properly callus up and I can understand what is being said. Further, theater about the Irish (in particular theater about RURAL Irish) usually deal with bonecrushing despair, deprivation, and oppression, and English-Language theater loves it because its within walking distance of London.

For the second point, I knew that it would be about female bonding, and any males presented would be fool or leches or both. Team that up with Irish and you know you are not heading towards any kind of happy ending.

Still, when the opportunity presented itself once again to attend it with the Lovely Bride, I did not shirk, but faced this Irish play like a man. And while it was very much as I expected it (indeed, the couple next to me bailed at intermission), it was very good, well-written and well-acted, and worth the trip (sorry, couple next to me - you lose).

The play is the adult reminiscence of the adult Michael (Benjamin Harris) of a summer in his aunts' cottage in rural Ireland (warning!) in 1936. He is the illegitimate child of Christine (Elizabeth Raetz), and the pair live with Christine's four sisters - inflexible Kate (Mari Nelson), joking Maggie (Gretchen Krich), motherly Agnes (Linda K. Morris), and simple Rose (Cheyenne Casebier). Elder brother Jack (Todd Jefferson Moore) has returned from Africa, where he was a chaplain at a leper colony and has gone a bit off his nut (male figure as fool). And Michael's bio-father (Troy Fischnaller) is a con artist whose infrequent returns delight Michael's mother and then plunge her into depression when he leaves.

And the household is both light and dark - struggling to get by while at the same time exuding warmth and family. The dancing of the title fits in as analogy for sex, for society, for the world outside, and for tradition. And all this brightness as adult Michael foreshadows the storms that will swamp the home.

And about half-way through the final act, I finally get it. This is what it is all about - that last summer when they are all together, when they are dancing. After this everything caves in slowly as the family breaks up, as hearts are broken, as the flesh weakens and the mind wanders and things will never be the same. But for the moment, everything fits together, everything works, and there is hope for survival. Yeah, that makes the trip worthwhile.

The cast is generally brilliant, in particular the women. Maggie swaggers and kids effortlessly. Kate is brittle almost to the point of breaking, Agnes has deep waters flowing, and Christine is by turns commanding and vulnerable. And Cheyenne completely disappears into the role of Rose.

The men are a bit more of a mixed bag. Harris engages as our mouthpiece into this world. Moore, as Jack, plays the fool, broadly at first, but with increased dignity as he recovers in the family (though with a dark edge as they cannot expect what he recovers to become). Fischnaller was the sole disappointment, in that if he's got a welsh accent, I'm a member of Monty Python.

The production values were high and convoluted, to the point that the stagecraft was at points blocking the action.

Do I still not regret going to the first version of is some 17 years back? No. Am I pleased to have gone now? Yeah, for reasons that would not have been clear to me as a callow youth back in '93.

More later,