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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Irish Repertory Theatre


  Michael Mellamphy, Sarah Street, Harry Smith and Robert Langdon Lloyd in The Plough and the Stars/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

For me it was not one play, but the Irish Rep’s Dublin Trilogy – three productions of Sean O’Casey’s early plays: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). The fearless Irish Rep created a repertory cast of 14 players to act in all three plays, and a trio of directors to stage them – Irish Rep regulars Charlotte Moore, the group’s artistic director; Ciaran O’Reilly, Irish Rep’s producing director; and Neil Pepe, the artistic director from the nearby Atlantic Theater Company who brilliantly staged Juno and the Paycock.

O’Casey was a self-educated Dublin bricklayer who became one of the great dramatists of the world and one of the most controversial of all Irish writers. Juno is thought to be O'Casey's masterpiece and still is a modern classic. The Plough and the Stars caused a riot when it premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theater in 1926.

His first plays shocked audiences – not only because he said things they didn’t like to hear, but also because of their tough-minded vitality. O'Casey quoted lower-class Dubliners directly like the ones he lived with in the shabby low-rent Dublin tenement district, many of whom he had fought with against the British in the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Playgoers who were unaccustomed to this kind of realism were startled and dismayed. They didn’t care to see themselves or their neighbors on the stage. Of course, the Irish Rep actors loved playing O’Casey’s realistic characters. No other Irish playwright of that day wrote with the strength of O'Casey.

As a blunt realist, O’Casey represented through his dramas the Dublin in which he had been born and raised was unmatched. And at the Irish Rep he had a matchless company of players to make his points magnificently – among them Maryann Plunkett, who was peerless as maternal Juno Boyle in Juno and the Paycock and a darker, boisterous character in The Plough and the Stars. Ciaran O’Reilly drops his directing chores and puts on his acting togs to play the impeccable rendition of Captain Jack Boyle in Juno. His comic sidekick, Joxer Daly, is played by Irish Rep player John Keating. Others triple or double in a variety of roles like Sarah Street, who plays the Boyle's daughter in Juno and a prostitute in Plough to the Stars.

One year after The Plough and the Stars, O’Casey began to break away from realism with the play The Silver Tassie. In this fiercely pacifist drama, he introduced one “expressionistic” scene behind the Allied lines of World War I. To O’Casey’s great indignation – and he was a man who could be indignant – when the poet-playwright William Butler Yeats refused to produce it at the Abbey, O'Casey left Ireland forever and eventually settled at Torquay in Devon, England.

The Irish Rep captured O’Casey’s greatness as a playwright derived from the richness of his language, which was true and beautiful, and from the assortment and vitality of the characters he created – some of whom, like O’Reilly's Paycock and his pal Keating's Joxer have the wit and humor of Shakespearean stature. In 1937, New York Times critic James Agate called O'Casey's Juno the greatest play written in English since the days of Queen Elizabeth.

The Irish Rep productions of O’Casey’s work, for me, achieve the miracle of the theater, which is to be true to the playwright’s innermost intentions, while also being stirring, amusing, startling, enlightening and delighting the audience. That was the Irish Rep's heady achievement doing O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy.


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