mini-Synge fest from coast to coast

Members of the Irish theater company
Druid perform two John Millington
Synge plays as part of the Cal Perf-
ormances season in Berkeley. Photo
courtesy of Druid
October 9, 10:54 AM
by Chad Jones, S.F. Theater Examiner

Americans have been spared all 8 ½ hours of Druid's mammoth "DruidSynge" cycle of John Millington Synge plays. But in California they did get nearly three hours we do get.

Founded in Galway, Ireland in 1975 by fresh-faced theater graduates Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen and Mick Lally, Druid was the first professional theater company formed outside of Dublin (and its name hails from the "Asterix" comics).

In the more than 30 years of its existence, Druid has become a theatrical force in Ireland (along with The Abbey and The Gate), introducing the world to the work of Martin McDonagh and re-introducing the work of Synge in a 2005 cycle of all six Synge plays performed in one long stretch. "DruidSynge" traveled the world, and now, in a slightly reduced state, it makes its Bay Area debut as part of the Cal Performances series in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, who provides its Roda Theatre for the event.

Druid's traveling presentation comprises two plays: the short but potent "The Shadow of the Glen" and Synge's best known work, the beguiling "The Playboy of the Western World."

This mini-Synge fest, which opened Wednesday, Oct. 8, and continues through Sunday, Oct. 12, offers a unique opportunity to see Synge performed without the Irish cutesiness that so often accompanies American attempts at these dark, curious plays.

Directed by Hynes (the first woman to win a best director Tony for her work on McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" in 1998), these two plays are a fascinating double feature. Both feature men who are supposed to be dead but turn out not to be dead. Both plots are essentially fired up by protagonists striking out against the tyranny of deep country loneliness. And both feature Irish peasantry that seems as fantastical and poetic as something out of Shakespeare by way of Beckett by way of Gaelic mythology.

In "Shadow" we enter into a grim country home. The lady of the house (Catherine Walsh) is watching over the body of her recently deceased husband (Tom Hickey) when a tramp (Peter Gowen) drops in the hope of receiving some sustenance and getting out of the rain.

Within the half hour, the dead has arisen and lives are completely re-ordered amid much shouting and accusation hurling. No one is going gently into any good night here.

"Playboy" is, of course, the centerpiece of the evening, but the echoes of "Shadow" resonate. Hynes has set a tone of antic grimness, and that explodes in "Playboy," which is more of an outright comedy - a farce even, at some points.

Things must be pretty dull in the coastal region of Mayo because the arrival of a stranger named Christy Mahon (Simon Boyle) throws the whole area into a tizzy. Christy claims he has killed his father, and that badge of lawlessness makes him appealing to just about everyone, especially the fiery Pegeen Mike (Sarah-Jane Drummey), who will gladly dump her churchy fiancé (Marcus Lamb) for this hyperactive young murderer.

The whole town clamors for Christy - until his father shows up, very much not dead. Oh, how fickle the folk can be. You're a superstar celebrity one moment, the object of a lynching the next.

Hynes and her actors masterfully balance the darkness and the comedy, which makes for a strangely textured but highly enjoyable evening. The sadness, drinking and desperation that run through each play are tinged with manic comedy and laughter in the face of death.

Apparently there were riots at the opening of both these Synge plays back in the early part of the 20th century because of the way he portrayed Irish peasantry, and especially the way he portrayed women. But here in the 21st century, Synge seems a master of many levels - an ironic farceur laughing through the pub and the graveyard.

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