nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
April 28, 2011
In a time long before the summer blockbuster, when Hollywood didn’t have the monopoly on escapist action-adventure, industrious dramatists like Dion Boucicault sated audiences' need for tales of love and heroics with fanciful melodramas like The Shaughraun. It has everything you’d want from popcorn entertainment: dastardly villains, cunning heroes, damsels in distress, ingenious escape plans, love, revenge, and justice! But how does this swashbuckling melodrama from 1874 hold up in 2011? With gender politics only slightly less dated than this year’s Fast Five, I’m happy to report that the play itself retains its swashbuckling, adventurous luster. As currently produced by Irish Repertory Theater, however, this production of The Shaughraun is, unfortunately, a mixed bag.
The Shaughraun takes place in a small town in Ireland called Shoolabeg, where the well-loved Ffolliott family has come into a bit of trouble: their golden boy, Robert Ffolliott, has been wrongfully convicted and sent away to serve in a penal colony in Australia. With Robert gone, his sister, Claire Ffolliott, and his fiancée, Arte O’Neal, have no one to protect them from their duplicitous landlord, Corry Kinchela. In a classic scene of “I can’t pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” Kinchela vows to take away everything the girls own, unless Arte becomes his wife. In the midst of all this, a stranger arrives—a dim-witted but noble-hearted British officer named Harry Molyneux. Molyneux has to come to the shores of Shoolabeg in search of an escaped criminal. Instantly, Molyneux becomes smitten with the fiery Claire Ffolliott, and she with him—despite her rabble-rousing anti-British leanings. Finally, we are introduced to the title character, Conn, The Shaughraun, a fiddle-playing, whisky-drinking, wise-cracking, loveable vagabond who has, we find out, sailed all the way to Australia and brought back Robert Ffolliott to Ireland. What follows is the fun of The Shaughraun: an epic tale of intrigue and adventure involving plot twists and schemes, love kindled and hopes dashed, and all ending—of course—with marriages and songs and dances.
In the current production, however, the adventurous theatricality of Boucicault is marred by an overly literal production by Charlotte Moore, and an uneven acting company. Strongest of the company are the excellent Mark Shanahan and Alison Jean White as Harry Molyneux and Claire Ffolliott. These two performers do a great job of embracing both the reality of their characters' circumstances, and the high style of 19th century melodrama. The result is that the scenes that Shanahan and White share are the highlights of the evening, combining the kind of breathless “will they, won’t they” love affair of their characters, with a broader, more self-aware style that is hilarious. Less strong is Patrick Fitzgerald as Conn, The Shaughraun. The part of Conn was written for Boucicault himself to perform, and requires a huge scene-stealing, scenery-chewing comic presence. While this is no easy task, and Fitzgerald works hard at it—and achieves it in a few well-delivered asides—ultimately, he is not up to the task.
Likewise, the production by Moore takes little advantage of the theatrical whimsy of Boucicault’s text, choosing instead to literally recreate each moment on stage. An example of this comes towards the end, when Conn has one of the villains face his accusers. Instead of finding a creative way to create the rogue’s gallery despite not having as many actors as required, Moore simply has two actors lumber on and grumble, and a moment that should be full of joy, suspense, and thrills, sags. The result of this, and other similar choices, makes the piece plod along when it should gallop.
That being said, it’s hard not to be swept up in the adventure story that Boucicault weaves, and to smile and slap your knee at each smartly conceived twist in the plot. The Irish Repertory Theatre is to be commended for producing The Shaughraun, which is well worth reviving and a great deal of fun. The last few years have seen a number of Boucicault’s works on the boards in NYC, and I can only hope this trend continues.