AISLE SAY Philadelphia


by J. M. Synge
The Abbey Theatre Production
Directed by Ben Barnes
With Original Music by Joe Townsend
The Zellerbach Theatre of the
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA
Box Office: (215) 898-3900
Reviewed by Claudia Perry

As part of its centennial celebration, The Abbey Theatre of Ireland brings "The Playboy of the Western World" to Philadelphia for the first time in 70 years. J. M. Synge's controversial play, written in 1907 and first performed here in 1912 to a riotous reception, returns with a new, visceral and visually bold production of this poetic classic. At the turn of the century, Synge's raw vision of the life of poor working class characters off the Western coast of Ireland drew shocked indignation throughout the dramatic world. This outrage only increased the popularity of the play and Synge's celebrity at the time. And now the play is perceived as the crowning achievement of this most highly regarded of Irish playwrights.

The protagonist, Christy Mahon, wanders into a small Irish village to proclaim that he has just killed his father by splitting his head with a shovel. The villagers embrace him, reasoning that his "courageous" act has made him "the playboy of the Western world". Through the adulation heaped on him by the townspeople a dirty, skittish, paranoid Christy becomes a confident, swaggering winner of horse races and young girl's hearts. However, events take on a different shape when his father returns very much alive. The great irony of the play lies in the fact that he has transmogrified into a playboy precisely because the villagers see him as one.

John Millington Synge is not easy to listen to. His theatrical voice is rich and thick with exquisite images. Couple this with the delicious Irish accents and arcane words which are not in our everyday vernacular, and you have a very difficult first ten minutes of the play. However, once you tune your ear to the music of the language delivered with style and verve by this wonderful troupe of actors; and let the waves of the words crash into your consciousness, you can enter the world of these tragi-comic characters. As in listening to Shakespeare - we have to take a leap into the pool of language in all its complex extraordinariness and beauty before we can allow the story to take us where it will.

Director Ben Barnes has rightly tempered this lush script with vibrant visual images and vigorous physical movement. When Christy seduces Pegeen he woos her not only with his words but with his body - laying the entire length of his torso down upon her before a single kiss is exchanged. When the horse races are being described by four characters downstage, upstage we see Christy and four other members of the ensemble physically enact their description while their shadows are projected onto a cyclorama. And when Christy is caught, he is harnessed like an unbroken horse and dragged through the town almost as if being drawn and quartered by the now angry villagers. All this plus the presentational element added by the Bellman in starting scenes and handing out props to actors plus the raucous original music and sound design by Joe Townsend only adds to the success of this production.

Tom Vaughan Lawlor gives a very sympathetic and energized performance as Christy Mahon.Cathy Belton as Pegeen Mike, the woman Christy sets his hat for and Owen Fouere as the Widow Quin are both striking in their portraits of strong women. Maeliosa Stafford plays Christy's father as a burly, brute of a man whom we're happy to see dead. Shawn Keogh is appropriately a cowering milk sop and John Olohan as Pegeen's father Michael James, is the eternally good natured drunk. The rest of the cast to a man and woman display wonderful ability in their handling of the poetic language, character believability, and divine restraint. I say this because on the American stage today there is a tendency to believe that bigger is better. And too many productions are so over the top that one wearies quickly of the theatrical tricks. So it's rewarding to see actors who can be big enough to play style while still holding on to that kernel of truth which keeps a character real. So Kudos to the Abbey Theatre.

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