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Elements of Irish Theater

This article by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

Begorra! But great Irish theater is upon us yet! For

four weeks beginning Thursday, February 25, through Saturday, March

20, Magnet Theater Company of Trenton and the Vagabond Acting Troupe

of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, are presenting in rotation four

plays by four contemporary Irish and Irish-American playwrights at

the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. Here’s "Molly Sweeney"

by Brian Friel, "Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me" by Frank McGuinness,

"A Night in November" by Marie Jones, and "Tales of the

Fairy Queen," a newly-created children’s play by Aileen McCulloch

and Ty Furman.

The "Festival of Irish Theater" is the brainchild of Mark

Jacobson, Magnet’s managing director. A young company, Magnet is in

its second season. Founded in 1996, the company’s first production,

"Waiting for Lefty," was presented in spring, 1997. Charles

Hayman, Magnet’s founding artistic director, notes that "to mount

four full productions from our own company would be very difficult,

so we looked for a company to partner with, and Vagabond just naturally

came to mind." Members of Magnet have previously worked with Vagabond

and acted in some of their shows.

Irish theater buffs have plenty to brag about. They know that it was

the Irish National Theater that became the famed Abbey Theater in

Dublin and had among its renowned playwrights William Butler Yeats,

Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, and Sean O’Casey. Synge wrote

the classic one-act, "Riders to the Sea." His "Playboy

of the Western World," and O’Casey’s "The Plough and the Stars"

and "Juno and the Paycock" — all three provoked riots

and protests when they opened — are still played today. As the

century progressed, Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett, whose "Waiting

for Godot" changed the course of modern theater, inherited the

mantle of Irish theater.

Now, following in this tradition, comes a new generation of Irish

playwrights, represented in this Irish Theater Festival. Brian Friel

has written some 18 plays, translated Chekhov, adapted Turgenev’s

novels for the stage, and has published collections of short stories

and radio plays. Friel has been called "Ireland’s greatest living

playwright" by the New York Times. His "Dancing at Lughnasa,"

which premiered at the Abbey Theater in 1990, went on to London’s

West End, then to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards including

Best Play in 1992, and is now a film starring Meryl Streep and Michael

Gambon. Friel’s "Wonderful Tennessee," 1993, was produced

at McCarter Theater in 1995.

"Molly Sweeney" (1994), a three-character play about a woman,

blind since infancy who gets her sight back, has been called "beautiful,

dazzling, marvelous". Writes the New York Times, "`Molly Sweeney’

confirms that Mr. Friel writes like a dream," and the London Sunday

Times noted the play’s "dispassionate eloquence and psychological

honesty." With two additional characters, Molly’s husband and

her eye surgeon, the play interweaves the stories of all three and

culminates in a moving conclusion. "This play is about who lives

a person’s life for them," says Hayman. "Do they make decisions

for themselves, or do they allow other people to make decisions for


"Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me," nominated for both Olivier

and Tony awards, won the New York Critics Circle and Writers’ Guild

awards. About three hostages in Lebanon, men from Ireland, America,

and England, it is told from the point of view of the Irish prisoner.

Among McGuinness’ other plays are "The Factory Girls," the

award-winning "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the

Somme," and "Baglady," all staged at the Abbey in Dublin.

He has also won television awards, written poetry, adapted Lorca,

Ibsen, and Chekhov, and created the new, stunning translation of Sophocles’

"Electra" for Zoe Wanamaker produced at McCarter Theater last

fall and now enjoying a smash run on Broadway.

"A Night in November" premiered at the Dubblejoint Theater

in Dublin, then crossed the Atlantic to rave reviews and an extended

New York run. The New York Times called it "fragile and magical…

funny tumultuous, poignant and perceptive," and U.S. 1’s Simon

Saltzman judged it to be "scalding, funny, and compassionate…

trenchant and exciting" as "an admittedly soulless little

man, an asshole [becomes] a new Irish Man."

"A Night in November" is a one-man show, directed by Aileen

McCulloch, about "The Troubles," northern Irish Protestant

and Catholic hatred, about religious oppression, "about what it’s

like to live in Ireland today," says Hayman, "the struggle

to live with your neighbors who believe different things than you


Magnet and Vagabond are performing the festival’s four

plays in repertory rather than presenting the shows successively as

is commonly done. Hayman says the desire was to mount a true festival.

"We started out looking at the idea of doing what you might call

`an event’ — Meaning that we would have more than one play on

a given topic. Marketing theater is a challenge at all times, so you’re

constantly looking for a way to get the audience to pay attention

to what you’re doing."

Irish theater was selected as the festival focus because, says Hayman,

"within the last three or four years Irish theater has produced

a great deal of very, very good theater. And we have a large Irish-American

community in the area. The two elements just seemed to work well together."

Magnet is producing two of the plays, "Molly Sweeney," directed

by Frank Leach, and "A Night in November," and Vagabond is

responsible for two, "Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me" and the

original children’s show, "Tales of the Fairy Queen." Aileen

McCulloch, Vagabond’s artistic director, who is Irish-American, directs

"Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me" and "A Night in November."

Together, she and co-author Ty Furman direct "Tales of the Fairy

Queen" which they wrote together for the festival. The children’s

play is about a young boy who promises to spread the word about the

magic of fairies to a world that seems bent on forgetting them.

The selection of the three Irish plays was determined both by desire

and availability. "Plays that are running in New York you just

cannot get the rights for," says Hayman. "Once we’d decided

on an Irish festival, we read the Irish Times. We considered several

plays, then we looked at our company and polled our members."

Hayman hopes this festival will be the first of several. He is already

looking toward the year 2000. But whether the next will be a women’s

festival — plays by and about women — or an Italian festival,

or a festival of another kind is as yet undecided.

"Irish theater, especially modern Irish theater, is a theater

of word." says Hayman. "Word and thought."

Jacobson agrees that "Irish plays are more about language than

most plays. The dramatic action is not as intensive, so from a directing

standpoint, you need to activate the play, but in such a way as not

to overwhelm the words, because that is what is wonderful about Irish

plays." Says Hayman, "Theater, in its best form, is theater

of the word."

— Joan Crespi

Molly Sweeney, Magnet Theater Company, Mill Hill

Playhouse, Front & Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-5589. Opening

night for Magnet Theater’s four-week Festival of Irish Theater. $12.

Thursday, February 25, 8 p.m.

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