Using his best Irish brogue, director and Princeton University lecturer in theater Tim Vasen quotes Irish actor Stephen Rae: “There are really only two perfect Irish plays, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ and ‘Translations.’” Rae, considered one of Ireland’s most prominent actors and best-known in the United States for his award-winning performance in the 1993 film, “The Crying Game,” was on the Princeton campus recently to participate in the gala opening of Princeton’s newly-acquired Milburg Collection of Irish Theater.
The university’s upcoming production of John Millington Synge’s comedy/drama “Playboy of the Western World,” sponsored by Princeton’s theater program and Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, joins the events surrounding the debut of the collection. Under the direction of Vasen, performances will take place over two weekends, Friday and Saturday, November 10 and 11, and Thursday and Saturday, November 16 and 18, in the Berlind Theater at McCarter.
With the production of “Translations” by Brian Friel having just closed its run on McCarter’s main stage at the end of October, area theatergoers have the opportunity this fall to see both of Rae’s “perfect plays,” lauded by many for their place in the Irish canon.
From this rich supply of Irish plays, I ask Vasen why he chose “Playboy.” He tells me, in a phone interview as he races from his home in Brooklyn to Princeton, where he spends most of his days in preparation for this production as well as teaching university classes in stage direction and acting, that as soon as he knew he was to direct an Irish play, he began reading and re-reading. “‘Playboy’ was the most satisfying to read, the most satisfying to think about staging, and would also work best with young actors,” he says. Though all of the play’s characters aren’t young, Vasen felt that the university students could handle them. “(I thought) it would be a great challenge that they could rise to.”
“Playboy” is set on the northwest coast of Ireland in the early 1900s, and was first performed in 1907 in Dublin, where it caused quite a sensation with protests by Catholics, who didn’t like the questionable moral fiber of these rural Irish Catholic characters as they were portrayed. In the play, a young man running away after clobbering his father, enters a pub where, after he relates his recent exploits, is hailed as a hero by the locals. This once timid young man rises to his newfound reputation. As Vasen adds, “just when you think it’s a light-hearted comedy, something dark will happen to keep the audience surprised. It is a play that switches its tone constantly.”
The other device that is central to the charm of this play is the language. Vasen says: “It is an incredibly rich language that is still the way the people speak in the west of Ireland.” As anyone who saw “Translations” would know, the English decided that Gaelic should be replaced by English. “So they (the Irish) took the English and very much made it their own,” says Vasen. “It is poetry in everyday life, and there is a lot of pleasure for me in that.”
Playwright Synge wanted to record the life of western Ireland, according to Vasen, “at a time when it was pretty much unknown. Synge spent a lot of time out there and this play is the result of his hearing a lot of great old stories and synthesizing the material.” To prepare for this directorial assignment, Vasen, who is of Irish descent, also went to Ireland to immerse himself in the atmosphere of West Ireland. As a first-time visitor, he was on a mission beyond reconnecting with his ancestors.
Synge’s reputation rests on six plays including the well-known one-act drama “Riders to the Sea.” “Playboy” was only the second of his full-length plays. Vasen describes it as “almost a textbook example of how to create an interesting evening in the theater.” Unfortunately, Synge had a very short career; he died in 1909 at the age of 38.
Vasen first came to Princeton’s theater program in 1995, direct from graduate school at Yale University. This was his first professional job with, as he describes it, “my freshly-minted degree.” Each year the Princeton theater program brings in an outside director. That year, he tells me, the play was Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” and he got the job. He has returned “off and on” with this being his first academic year full-time.
As an undergraduate, also at Yale, he majored in American studies, which he describes as “an interdisciplinary approach to looking at culture — history, literature, art, politics, ecology. It’s an approach that has served me well as a director. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s been helpful.” This is a good fit for the Princeton theater program, which, like the university’s other arts programs, has no theater major. Vasen tells me he, like most instructors in the arts at Princeton, is not a professor but a person who works in the arts. “This exposes the students to working professionals.”
In addition to “Playboy” Vasen will also direct, in April, 2007, the world premiere of Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play, “Boris Godunov.” Featuring the incidental music of Sergei Prokofiev, an authoritative new translation by Antony Wood, and directorial concepts of Vsevolod Meyerhold, this impressive undertaking will involve students in the Program in Theater and Dance, the Princeton University Orchestra, the Princeton University Chamber Chorus, and the School of Architecture. Theater, by its nature, is a collaborative art form; this extravaganza promises to push this concept to the limit. As an aside: Meyerhold, at first a stalwart of the communist regime, fell out of favor because of his experimental theater. In fact, he was arrested in 1939 and shot the following year. Theater is a dramatic world.
Vasen has had much experience working with professional actors. For a number of years, he was a resident director at Baltimore’s Center Stage but he enjoys working with student actors. “It’s exciting to introduce students to the way we work in the professional theater,” he says. He finds that for many of them, the rehearsal process is new and that they learn to think about performing in a more organized way. “It’s something that professional actors take for granted but with student actors it can be a really eye-opening thing. It is definitely a lot more than learning their lines.”
He says the students arrive with different skills. “There are people in this show who are pretty serious about wanting to be an actor. Others are doing it because it is kind of fun and something different. I try to meet each student on their own level and treat them like professional actors, expect them to do their homework. And I hold them to a high standard.” Their work on the “perfect” Irish accent has been honed thanks to the use of recordings made by dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia, with whom Vasen worked at Center Stage. He tells me that she travels around the world recording real people in various parts of the globe.
With his schedule, it isn’t surprising that Vasen hasn’t had time to investigate the new Milburg Collection of Irish Theater. “That’s something I really like about directing, you get totally sucked into the world of whatever/wherever. For the time that you’re working on it, you are in a totally different world.” However, he did have the opportunity to direct the first reading of the Milburg Collection “prize,” the manuscript of a classic Irish play by Sean O’Casey, long thought lost even by the playwright himself. This cast included the actor Stephen Rae. “It was a hoot,” exclaims Vasen. Certainly, Princeton is immersed in wearin’ the green this fall.
The Playboy of the Western World, Friday and Saturday, November 10 and 11, 8 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, November 16 through 18, 8 p.m., Princeton University Theater and Dance Program, Berlind Theater, University Place. Student cast. Directed by Tim Vasen. $15. 609-258-2787.