Sunday, April 25, 2010

Irish Bitters

Currently performed at the Strand Theater, Marina Carr's The Mai studies the deterioration of a rural Irish family over four generations. There are echoes of the old Irish melodramas of Synge and O'Casey in the poetic laments of Irish folk doomed by their histories. There is also a dose of Yeats, as the script attempts to mythologize the family's suffering into a neo-Greek tragedy, where personal suffering seems rooted in a a bitter cosmic fate. A contemporary Irish playwright, Carr adds a feminist note to the drama since it is very much the gender-specific suffering of women, tied to an ancient code of fidelity and forbearance, that constitutes the heart of the family collisions.
The play's eponymous heroine is the Mai (Amelia Adams), a stolid school principal who attempts to keep together her elegant house and her shattered marriage to a philandering husband against the forces of destruction. Perfectly costumed in a neoclassical tunic, the statuesque Adams gives the Mai the tragic poise which makes her the pivot of the suffering clan. The vacuous chatter and cello-playing of her adulterous husband Robert (Jonathan Sachsman) reveals that the Mai's efforts to maintain the appearance of marriage are as vain as they are noble. Her sisters Connie (Jessica Baker) and Beck (April Rejman) suffer similar romantic illusions from an impetuous marriage that has failed in a matter of months and from an all-too successful marriage that is nothing but convention. The Mai's child, Millie (Brenda Badger), who also acts as the play''s narrator, evokes the emotional damage that has already scarred the new generation emerging from the duplicitous marriage. Acting as the conscience of a dying Catholic Ireland, Aunt Julie (played with authority by Nancy Linden) and Aunt Agnes (Luci Poirier) lamely plead for the preservation of chastity and attempt to ward off divorce. In the evening's bravura performance, Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler plays the feisty Grandmother Fraochlan, whose personal mix of Catholicism, Gaelic paganism, and earthy sexual experience give her an exuberant defiance of adversity which the other family members lack. But her addiction to alcohol and opium, as well as the illusions of her own romantic tales, indicate that freedom and happiness are very restrained in this doomed, perfectly furnished house.
Director Jayme Kilburn has carefully cultivated the particular tragedy lurking in each character. The final ensemble scene is especially moving. There are some technical problems, however. Several of the actors speak too quickly to be heard. The effort of the ensemble to adopt appropriate Irish brogues is uneven.
Designed by the muralist David Cunningham, the set is a master piece. The chalk-like etchings of the Mai's elegant house exterior, interior rooms, and furniture, splashed over the walls and floor of the narrow playing space, evoke both the Mai's determined aspiration to a successful family and professional life and the fragile, fading nature of that doomed aspiration. Even before the lights dim, the Gaelic wheel of fortune is turning.

Friday, April 2, 2010

From Sound to Sight at Mobtown

Currently presenting two new plays, Mobtown Theater at Meadow Mill mixes a dramatic search for sound with an even more dramatic search for sight.

Jim Cary's An Ounce of Blues follows a white soldier (Jack) who finally locates an obscure black guitarist (Mr. Walter) whom the solider has long idolized. The encounter between the two in the deep rural South centers on the reluctant performance on the blues guitar by Mr. Walter, complemented by the sudden love of Jack for Mr. Walter's perky assistant (Regina). As Regina, Lauren Blackwell lights up the piece which, despite its consistent "journey of discovery" structure, suffers from an overabundance of stereotypes about the Old South.

The tour-de-force of the evening is Joe Denison's Karovice. In this one-character play, a despairing artist delivers a brilliant monologue, where alliterations, puns, incantations, curses, prayers, and shards of memory trace the artist's progressive isolation. Powerfully acted by Mark Squirek, the mesmerizing monologue is illustrated by the artist's painting on originally blank canvases to express his harrowing mood swings. Ably directed by John Garner, the acrobatic performance by Squirek and the simple, primitivist stamp of the emerging paintings give the play its visual elegance.