The Yeats Project
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
April 15, 2009
While best known for his poetry, Irish writer William Butler Yeats was also a playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. To mark the 70th anniversary of his death, Irish Repertory Theatre has mounted The Yeats Project, a celebration of Yeats's dramatic catalogue – eight of his short plays in full production (reviewed here), and the other 18 in staged readings.
For his time, Yeats was really experimental. He was influenced more by ancient Greek drama and Japanese Noh theater than more conventional theater styles—he shunned realism, preferring minimal sets and costumes, and symbolism to naturalism. His "experiments" may sound a little tame today alongside the Neo-Futurists or the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, but compared to the more traditional drawing room comedies everyone else was doing in the early 20th century, it was electrifying.
But we're living in the early 21st century, not the early 20th, and I'm afraid not all of Yeats's work has aged well. The stagings wrought by Irish Rep directors Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly may be muddying the waters a bit. Both take a Yeatsian minimalist approach for the most part—Charles Corcoran's set design is stripped down to a few pieces of furniture and a fake rock—but both add some modern-day fillips like video projections (designed by Jan Hartley) and lots of original music (composed by Bill Whelan, best known for Riverdance).
Some of their enhancements do help—but some don't. In one piece, the moody, bizarre Full Moon in March, a wicked Queen (ensemble member Amanda Quaid) has an encounter with a swineherd (Kevin Collins) who challenges her cruelty. She has him slaughtered, then dances with his severed head. Whelan's music and the moody projections combine with Quaid's sensual dance to wonderfully eerie effect, turning Yeats's tale into some sort of fairy-tale-from-hell. But with both The Land of Heart's Desire, the story of a new bride (Quaid, again) being lured away from her home to join the fairies, and Purgatory, which sees a drifter and his son (Peter Cormican and Justin Stoney, respectively) revisiting the ruins of their ancestral home, the added musical elements and video projections are a distraction. The repeated harp riff used in Heart's Desire to herald the Fairy Child (Amanda Sprecher) even seems a bit stereotypically "stage Irish." Another production choice that feels strained comes at the end of the nationalist drama Cathleen Ni Houlihan: O'Reilly has tacked on a musical coda, bringing the ensemble back on stage to sing Tommy Makem's song "Four Green Fields" as the Irish flag is projected on the wall behind them. There's historic cause—Makem took the lyrics from the Yeats play—but it definitely feels out of place.
The ensemble's work is also a bit uneven, but I'm blaming Yeats for that, rather than the players. Everyone in the ensemble can and does switch gamely between wildly different roles—Quaid has to play both the young bride in Heart's Desire and the bloodthirsty Queen in Full Moon In March on the same night, and does a fine job with both. Two other real standouts in the cast are Terry Donnelly and Patrick Fitzgerald, whom I first saw in The Pot of Broth; Fitzgerald and Donnelly have fantastic comedic presence as the miserly housewife and the quick-witted drifter in this retelling of the classic folk tale about "stone soup." But the clearly talented Donnelly seems at sea in the title role of The Countess Cathleen, playing a noblewoman who makes a supernatural sacrifice. However, the script to Countess Cathleen is such a baroque mix of Christian theology, Celtic folklore, and Yeatsian poetic dialogue that I'm not sure who would be able to pull it off.
Yeats's work is something of an uneven sea to be jumping into, and while the cast and crew do give their all, the results are a bit uneven as well.