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Intimate Federal Hill Space Revisits Early 20th Century Stabs At Irish National Theater

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE: Kyle Riley (left) and Sam McCready in "Purgatory."

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/5/2008

Three Irish Plays

By John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, and William Butler Yeats

At Performance Workshop Theatre through March 16

The cramped quarters at the Performance Workshop Theatre, the 28-seat basement space in Federal Hill, act as a magnifying glass. The audience is so close to the actors that details that would get lost in a normal theater--a bead of sweat trickling down a police officer's forehead, the tiny ping of an iron pot's handle, the long fingers of a fisherman's daughter struggling with a knot--become conspicuous.

As an enlarging lens, however, the intimate space plays no favorites. It can call attention to an actor's most subtle hint and slyest charm, but it can also expose an actor's less-than-confident hesitation and stiff gesture. Such successes and failures can all be found in the new production of Three Irish Plays, featuring the married Irish natives, Sam and Joan McCready, as co-stars and co-directors.

William Butler Yeats and his friend Lady Gregory co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and transformed it into the Abbey Theatre in 1904. They were determined to create a literary theater for Ireland where none had existed, and so they wrote their own plays and discovered young writers such as John Millington Synge. The Performance Workshop production samples these three pioneers by presenting Synge's 1904 "Riders to the Sea," Lady Gregory's 1907 "The Rising of the Moon," and Yeats' 1938 "Purgatory" in chronological order.

The Performance Workshop space's unforgiving nature is most evident in "Riders to the Sea." The one act takes place in a tiny cottage of rough plaster walls and a turf fireplace on the Aran Islands. Maurya, the family's imposing matriarch in a gray shawl and plain apron, has already lost a husband, a father-in-law, and four sons to the dangers of fishing in the Atlantic; a fifth son has been missing nine days, and the sixth is about the head out to sea again. Meanwhile, a priest has obtained some clothes pulled off a drowned corpse and has given them to Maurya's two daughters to identify.

Because the audience is literally sitting where the cottage's rear wall should be, we are more inside the room than out. Being so close, we can't help but notice that the two actresses playing the barefoot peasant daughters--Kate Volpe as Cathleen and Emily Krohn as Nora--don't appear altogether comfortable with the domestic chores they're asked to carry out, the thick Irish brogue they're asked to speak, or the agitated blocking they're asked to execute. Maybe if we were 20 feet farther back, they could get away with it, but at such close quarters they haven't a chance. Thus, when Maurya learns of another death and actress Joan McCready reveals the strangely liberating relief of final despair, it's too late; we're too aware that everyone is acting.

Volpe and Krohn play comic roles as junior police officers in "The Rising of the Moon," but they don't get in the way of the central confrontation between a police sergeant and a bent-over ballad singer. Tom Byrne plays the sergeant in a gold-spike helmet and a pompous officiousness that soon dissolves into worry about what he might do if he actually encounters the escaped prisoner peering out of the wanted poster on the nearby wall. Kyle Riley, playing the singer in a torn gray overcoat and beat-up guitar, tries to distract the anxious cop by turning on full the lamp of his charm.

Riley, blessed with a legitimate singing voice and an infectious smile, is charming indeed, and he wins over the audience as easily as he does the sergeant. Soon the copper and the busker are perched atop a black metal barrel plastered with advertisements, sharing a flask of whiskey, snatches of old folk songs, and stories of their youth. The sergeant muses dreamily that back then he never would have guessed who would become a police officer, a political prisoner, or a ballad singer. Sitting so close, the audience can see Byrne's face relax from his previous smugness and worry into a dawning understanding that he's not so different from the prisoner or singer. It's a magical moment.

In "Purgatory," Sam McCready plays an itinerant peddler and Riley his 16-year-old son. They stop in front of a burned-out shell of a mansion where the father contemplates the ghosts of his parents who died there. The decision to make the mother's ghost literal was an unwise one, as was the decision to have McCready and Riley perform in half-masks. The biggest problem, though, is that the dramatically inert "Purgatory" doesn't work as a play; it's really a long poem. The two actors work skillfully and valiantly to bring it to life onstage but to no avail.

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