Sunday, March 08, 2009

Play: Green Knight

The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, directed by Wilson Milam, Seattle Repertory Theatre, February 26- March 28.

Well, now I know where all the unspoken words in Pinter's Betrayal ended up - they were harvesting them for this sprawling, brawling, brilliant Irish play.

This is the second McPherson play I've seen - the first was The Weir at The Intiman almost ten years back. Both are set in Ireland, both dealing heavily with alcohol, and both get spookier as we move deeper into them.

Sharky (Hans Altwies) is back home on Christmas Eve, looking after his recently-blinded elder brother Richard (Sean G. Griffin). Sharkey has given up drink, a task made more difficult by the near-continual drunkfest in the house, such that at the start the near-demented Richard is passed out in his chair and family friend Ivan (a wonderfully befuddled Russel Hodgkinson) is sleeping in the upstairs bath. There is a bit of the loser about all three men - Sharky's drinking has burned a number of bridges and run him through a number of jobs, Richard was blinded while dumpster diving and swings wildly between patriarch and victim, while Ivan has lost his glasses while drinking and now faces the wrath of his wife on Christmas morning.

Add to this Nicky (Shawn Telford), a fast-talking sort of loser who ended up with Sharky's woman and his car, who drops by, along with Mr. Lockhart (Frank Corrado), who has been driving him around southern Dublin on a pub crawl. They're there for a traditional game of Christmas Eve poker. Its all a cascade of characterization and interaction, until you get to the point where Lockhart reveals he knows Sharky, and then things take a wonderfully sinister turn.

One of the great things about good scripts is that they work on multiple levels. Not just "single man/greater issues" levels, but the fact that two people in on the stage know something, the rest don't, and you (the audience) are let in on the secret as it unspools. The Seafarer does this wonderfully, combining family interaction, societal alcohol pressure, and well-meaning comrades with the supernatural and the aforementioned game of poker. And probably the best description of heaven and hell ever put onto the stage.

And the title comes from an old poem of the same name, wherein a sailor talks about the difficulty of his life at sea as opposed to the warmth of the hearth, and Sharky's vow of abstinence in an alcohol-fueled world reflects that. But what drives it forward is another tale - that of Gawain and the Green Knight, of promises made and debts collected.

All the actors are excellent, and most get the chance to show themselves at their best and at their worst over the course of the play. Altwies holds it together as the play's center, but Griffin and Telford roar and sparkle and Hodgkinson is just brilliant as the slightly-addled Ivan. All get their parts and all have their comic relief moments as they spill over a stage littered with beer bottles and cans. Corrado is good as well, flipping his menace on and off over the course of the evening, though his accent wanders through all of the original 32 counties of the Emerald Isle.

The stage itself is done up in "household clutter" mode, and while a maze of exits and stairs, the stage does not move, leaving that to the more-than-capable actors. The set is a minefield of not only furnishings, but of remains of beer and whiskey bottles and cans of Guinness (the lobby was selling the beer at intermission, with the sign "We may use your cans for props in the show"). Some of the drunken cascades the characters perform are initiated by some misstep on the deadly stage.

So the play is funny and serious, sad and thoughtful, terrible and bright. It is tough not to be jealous of a brilliant living playwright (the dead will do no more damage), but I'd definitely toast McPherson in hopes that I can be jealous for a lot longer.

More later,