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From Ireland: A Visit with Marina Carr

Article by Simon Saltzman published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 20, 1999. All rights reserved.

Dateline: Dublin. Irish playwright Marina Carr claims

that she never in her life had an alcoholic drink on Good Friday.

That was before she paid a visit to New York City last year. She recalls

how she just felt like celebrating the fact that she was walking down

Broadway. That is surely what prompted her to stop and commit the

daring, indeed blasphemous, deed as to order a gin and tonic.

As she exited the offending bar, one marquee — the Walter Kerr

— caught her eye. It blazed with "The Beauty Queen of Leenane

by Martin McDonagh." Pleased as she was that a young Irish playwright

whose plays have been nurtured by Galway’s Druid Theater Company had

his play on Broadway, there was that little tug of wishful thinking

going on inside the beautiful 35-year-old writer’s head. In a later

conversation, Carr acknowledges the cachet among Irish playwrights

of having a play win honors on Broadway.

Notwithstanding her joy at seeing a fellow countryman achieve success,

as she looked at the marquee, Carr made a solemn promise to herself

to never again have a drink on Good Friday. This was the story Carr

told last October to an enthralled gathering at the dress circle bar

in Dublin’s Gaiety Theater.

As a member of the American Theater Critics Association, I was there

with my wife to attend the Dublin Theater Festival, Europe’s oldest

theater festival. We didn’t know when we booked the Townhouse —

the guesthouse that "Time Out" magazine said was one of the

best on Lower Gardner Street — that it was so conveniently located

near the renowned Abbey Theater. There could be no better location.

On the marquee of the Abbey Theater could be seen "By the Bog

of Cats" by Marina Carr. And I did feel superior to my colleagues

when I told them, "I’m familiar with Carr’s work. I saw her play

`The Mai’ at its American premiere at the McCarter Theater." Although

Carr’s "The Mai" was originally produced in 1994 at the Peacock,

the Abbey’s smaller venue, the big news to the Irish critics was that

a woman playwright was getting a mainstage production at the Abbey,

an almost unheard of event.

Now another play by Carr, "Portia Coughlan" (also produced

in 1996 at The Peacock), about a young woman who, haunted by the death

of her brother, feels she must exorcise his ghost or go mad, is being

performed through January 31 at McCarter’s more intimately devised

120-seat Second Stage Onstage series. It is this event that leads

me to share part of my Dublin experience and my overseas opportunity

to meet the rapidly rising and acclaimed Irish playwright.

Despite the fact that the 10 theaters that were home

to the festival’s plays were easily found, we were, nevertheless,

destined for a daily and nightly foot race back and forth across the

various bridges that cross Dublin’s Liffey (the river that divides

the picturesque city) and past the many statues that grace virtually

every street corner. Far be it for an impoverished theater critic

and his wife to seek a cab or other mode of transportation. Certainly

on foot you don’t miss checking out the numerous pubs and antiquarians.

It was, in fact, the humorous commemorative statues such as Molly

Malone falling out of her bodice, which the locals refer to as "the

tart with the cart," Oscar Wilde reclining on a rock a.k.a. "the

fag on the crag," and the millennium clock over the Liffey River

a.k.a. "the time in the slime," that became the guiding landmarks

of our stay. And how could one forget which direction to go on McConnell

Street with the Anna Livia (from Joyce’s "Finnegan’s Wake")

Millennium Fountain, irreverently called "the floozy in the Jacuzzi,"

to remind us of the way.

Although recommended for tourists, we considered an excursion to see

Kilmainham Gaol, the largest unoccupied gaol in Ireland, to be out

of the way. But we did visit Trinity College to peruse the Book of

Kells, the famed hand-illustrated religious manuscript that dates

from 800 AD. But more importantly, our eight-day visit to Ireland

was a chance to see what was purported to be the best of Irish theater

mixed in with the best of international theater. Well, if it all wasn’t

the best, it was bountiful.

Staying for only eight days of the three week-long festival meant

we had to chose carefully from the almost two dozen shows being staged

at various venues about town. I submit that Carr’s "By the Bog

of Cats," a stirring mix of tragedy and comedy, was far and away

the best evening in the theater. Although steeped in Greek myth, Carr’s

Irish variation on "Medea," is deliciously flavored with such

classic staples as witchcraft, incest, arson, murder, and a catastrophic

wedding celebration. There is even a loony but visionary "cat

woman" who eats live mice.

Olwen Fouere was thrilling as Hester Swane, a wild outcast who lived

with her lover, a prosperous farmer and their child on the otherwise

barren bog. When Hester learns that her lover plans to marry a respectable

girl, she is filled with rage and tormented by the ghost of her brother.

Family secrets and deadly legacies are revealed, as Hester’s wrath

is unleashed like an uncontrollable force of nature.

A terrific supporting cast, including the always-excellent Pauline

Flanagan as the bridegroom’s trouble-making mother, were collectively

arresting. Carr’s play, under the direction of the Abbey’s artistic

director Patrick Mason, had us simultaneously laughing and gripping

our seats.

I had especially looked forward to Brian Friel’s new version of Chekhov’s

"Uncle Vanya." While Friel’s fresh minimally corrupted adaptation

was praiseworthy, the Gate Theater’s 70th anniversary production looked

crude and done on the cheap. Unfortunately, Ben Barnes’ rather archaic

staging was matched by Niall Buggy’s too studied performance. A disappointment.

More interestingly directed by Barnes was the Red Kettle Company’s

production of Jim Nolan’s "The Salvage Shop," at the Lyric.

This was an absorbing, refreshingly old-fashioned play about an exiled

son, a euphonium player, who returns home and attempts to mend his

relationship with his ill and aging bandmaster father (a splendid

performance by Niall Toibin).

The National Basketball Arena provided the wide-open space for "Le

Cri Du Cameleon" (The Cry of the Chameleon), a very odd, very

boring fusion of tumbling, acrobatics, and dance-movement from a youthful

French troupe. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Steven Berkoff’s "Shakespeare’s

Villains," at the grand old Olympia Theater, a half-parodic, half-neurotic

take on the nastiest (male and female) characters in the canon, gleefully

interpreted by the author. Berkoff’s on-target mocking of Shakespearean

acting styles, from Garrick to Olivier, was a riot.

Another one-man showcase, this one from Canada’s Da Da Kamera company,

was the one-hour (long-enough) "Monster." In it, Daniel MacIvor

(who also was co-writer with Daniel Brooks) was mesmerizing, horrifying,

and hilarious, as a kid, an ex-addict, obsessed with a bloody crime,

as well as possessed by both halves of a married couple.

Encountering the gentle pushing and shoving of an enthusiastic youthful

crowd that blocked general passage down Cavendish Row, we might have

thought we were in line for the rock concert of the decade. But no,

these were Irish theater devotees waiting for the doors of the Gaiety

Theater to open. All this, and there wasn’t even a play going up,

but a discussion about theater. Casting our lot with the pushiest,

we were not going to miss one of the acknowledged highlights of the

Dublin Theater Festival.

This evening was the third in a series of five free public discussions

called "In Conversation," a rare opportunity to hear contemporary

Irish writers and other theater artists speak and respond for an hour

or so to questions posed from an uncommonly savvy audience. We previously

attended an "In Conversation" featuring a stunningly self-serving

Steven Berkoff, the controversial, experimental writer, director,

and performer.

On October 14, it was the presence of Irish playwright Marina Carr

that made this "In Conversation" our special destination.

Carr shared the panel with playwright-director Jim Nolen ("The

Salvage Shop"), last year’s festival playwright Thomas Kilroy,

and moderator Ben Barnes (director of "The Salvage Shop" and

"Uncle Vanya").

Carr was generous in her praise of the collaborative efforts of a

production team and especially the designers who can often create

something "better than I could have ever imagined." Most illuminating

was Carr’s response to a question about her experience at McCarter

working with an American company and an American woman director, Emily

Mann. "It was rewarding and very different. I was very cognizant

of the different cultures and the little things of the Irish idiom

that are missing in American actors but are inbred in Irish actors."

There is a chuckle from the audience when Carr adds, "the Irish

school teacher in `The Mai’ appeared like a New England millionaire."

Whether Carr’s personal reaction to the McCarter production was enough

to send her out to the McCarter lobby bar for a gin and tonic we’ll

never know. But the experience was evidently rewarding enough for

her and the McCarter to have another go with another very Irish Carr


— Simon Saltzman

Portia Coughlan, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. On the Second Stage OnStage: Irish playwright

Marina Carr’s new play continues to January 31. $18; $7 for ages 25

and under.

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