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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Irish Repertory Theatre


  Ed Malone, Meg Hennessy and James Russell/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

Mistaken identity is a fundamental building block of boy-meets-girl romantic comedy. Usually, it is the result of an innocent misunderstanding or a well-intended ruse. The girl thinks the boy is someone he is not and grows attracted to the boy, and the boy plays along with the misconception until he is exposed, but somehow he manages to win the girl on his own merits and all ends happily. A simple example would be Polly Baker mistaking Bobby Child for Bela Zangler in Crazy for You, or Cecily thinking that Algernon is Uncle Jack’s brother Ernest in The Importance of Being Earnest

While there are countless deconstructions and inversions of mistaken identity (as best seen in Shakespearian comedies), it is hard to think of too many comedies of mistaken identity that end in outright tragedy – yet that is exactly what Sean O’Casey did in his 1923 comic drama The Shadow of a Gunman, the first piece of O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy” (which also includes Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars), which is being presented in repertory this season by Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre.

The “Dublin Trilogy” plays are rarely seen. Besides a 2013 revival of Juno and the Paycock by the Irish Rep in 2013, it was revived Off-Broadway in 2000 by the Roundabout. Surprisingly, it does not appear that Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company (which brought its production of O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie to Lincoln Center in 2011) has attempted any part of the trilogy to date.

Shadow of a Gunman, the least well-known play in the trilogy, was last produced by the Irish Rep two decades ago (with Ciaran O’Reilly, who directs the current production, leading the cast). Personally speaking, I had not seen any of the three plays before. In fact, my only exposure to it had been indirect, via attending the 2008 City Center Encores! production of Juno, Mark Blitzstein’s flop 1959 musical adaptation of Juno and the Paycock. As it happens, this is an ideal time for the Irish Rep to present the trilogy. The success of The Ferryman on Broadway has renewed (or at least ought to renew) interest in classic Irish drama depicting 20th-century Irish political tensions. The Shadow of a Gunman also reflects a major theme of The Ferryman, namely how easily romantic visions of rebellion lend their way to chaos and danger.

The opening of The Shadow of a Gunman (set in Dublin during the 1920 Irish War of Independence) resembles La Boheme. Donal Davoren (James Russell), a self-serious would-be poet, has been writing (or at least struggling to write) through the night in decrepit tenement living quarters while his friend Seamus Shields (Michael Mellamphy) sleeps. As morning approaches, the pesky landlord Mr. Mulligan (Harry Smith) comes knocking seeking the rent. He is followed by various other neighbors and acquaintances, some of whom treat Donal in an unusually deferential manner.

It turns out that a rumor has gone around that Donal is an Irish Republican Army gunman in hiding. Although Donal appears to be relatively apolitical, he does not seem to mind when the misunderstanding leads to him winning the attention and affection of the young and attractive Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), a sincerely fervent believer in the Republican cause. Donal also receives a plea from the elderly Mr. Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd) for the I.R.A. to assist with his long-winded legal cause of action. Besides establishing this basic misunderstanding scenario and adding some political commentary (with the jaded Seamus appearing to be a mouthpiece for O’Casey), little occurs in the play up until the abrupt and jarring final sequence.

For the occasion, the Irish Rep has added environmental touches to its main stage space. The interior hallway leading to the stage has been redone to resemble a lower-class tenement hallway of the period. Inside, there are laundry lines over the audience and exposed portions of brick walls. These scenic touches also pay off big time in the finale, in which Auxiliary Division soldiers enter through the audience and storm the tenement house.

O’Reilly’s production is straightforward but strong, with fine acting from the ensemble, including Russell’s socially awkward but softly romantic Donal, Mellamphy’s world-weary Seamus, Hennessy’s assertive and excited Minnie and Langdon Lloyd’s droll cameo. Under his direction, the play glides along smoothly as a romantic comedy and then manages the sharp turns into cultural commentary and then action-packed thriller (with an emphasis on the physical brutality).

The play is short enough (running less than two hours in total, with the first act lasting just 45 minutes) that perhaps all three parts of the trilogy could have been condensed into single acts and presented in the context of a single three-act production. Then again, the opportunity to take in all three plays is a rare opportunity for serious-minded theatergoers who care about rarely seen classic works. So it’s on to Juno and the Paycock and then The Plough and the Stars. Stay tuned.


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