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Theatre in Review: Rebel in the Soul (Irish Repertory)/Samara (Soho Rep)

Top: Patrick Fitzgerald. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Vinie Burrows. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

I know that the Irish are renowned for the gift of gab, but must it manifest itself in plays overloaded with dramatic monologues? A singular feature of modern Irish playwriting is an overreliance on long, long solo speeches. I blame Brian Friel for this; having had great successes with plays like Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney, he planted the notion that entire plays could consist of alternating monologues by a handful of characters. Not all playwrights are Brian Friel, however, and the unfortunate result has been a seemingly endless stream of baggy, prosy pieces in which the characters talk to us, but not to each other. I'm sure that many of them make great reading, but, on stage, they often seem flaccid.

In Rebel in the Soul, Larry Kirwan seizes on an incident from Irish history that should have provided the basis for a crackling play. It centers on NoŽl Browne, a physician/politician who, in the mid-twentieth century, played a major role in eradicating tuberculosis from Ireland, which made him a hero in many quarters. His downfall came when his Mother and Child Scheme -- which would have provided free health care, without means testing, to mothers and their children up to the age of sixteen -- ran afoul of the Catholic Church. In a scenario that will be depressingly familiar to anyone who loves Ireland and cares about the Church, the hierarchy cast aside any interest in helping the faithful in order to guard its temporal power.

Rebel in the Soul centers on the confrontation between Browne, who, driven by the justice of his cause, is thoroughly deaf to the niceties of politics (and who himself battles tuberculosis), and John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop of Dublin and as sly an intriguer to be found this side of Cardinal Richelieu. Commenting from the sidelines is SeŠn MacBride, founder of the political party Clann na Poblachta and Browne's sponsor -- who, nevertheless, grasps that no progress is possible without at least the tacit approval of the Church. Find a reason to get all three characters in a room and the drama would practically write itself.

Instead, Kirwan stalls the action as the characters, addressing the audience, run on at the mouth, talking about all sorts of subjects, among them their pasts, the political climate of Ireland, and their personal convictions. The information is often engaging and germane to the conflict at hand -- especially Browne's harrowing account of a childhood shaped by terrible poverty, followed by a remarkable reversal of fortune that set him on the road to a medical career while forever separating him from his siblings. Kirwan gives each character some intriguing shadings: Browne may be on the side of the angels, but he is his own worst enemy when it comes to political finesse. MacBride might be a smooth, compromising politician, but his insistence that, without Browne's interference, he could get ninety percent of the Mother and Child Scheme past the Church leaves one wondering if a magnificent opportunity was squandered by its greatest proponent. The play ends with Browne taking an act of revenge that, depending on your point of view, is either heroic or the work of a spoiled brat; it deserves far more examination than it gets here.

There's little question that Kirwan has a way with words, especially when Browne, bitterly commenting on the influence wielded by the Church over the government, states that his country has "a shadow government, one that's content to allow poor deluded politicians to muddle onwards, so long as we don't seriously challenge their power," or his comment that by attending Trinity College, he permanently put himself on the bad side of McQuaid, who had decreed "no Catholic shall enter that haven of Protestant immorality under pain of mortal sin." Taking a dismissive attitude toward MacBride, McQuaid confides to us, "His mother is a convert to Catholicism and has bequeathed him some rather dismaying strains of her Anglican superiority. "There's even a poet's touch to Browne's memory of returning home, by boat, from England: "And yet, in the misty silent morning I could almost touch the forbidding curtain of sanctity that sealed off the island."

But if the playwright had really let his characters engage in the cut and thrust of ideas and personalities, struggling over a piece of legislation that is really a proxy war for a nation's soul, how much more gripping Rebel in the Soul would be: The business of giving each character great big dollops of exposition turns the theatre into a lecture hall, leaving not enough room for the intriguing conflicts at the drama's center.

Charlotte Moore's production at least has three assured performances. Patrick Fitzgerald conveys Browne's drive and conviction, as well as a certain wild-eyed quality that makes him seem the sort of man you don't want to cross. He also makes sure that we are constantly aware of the illness that is forever threatening to sap his vitality. John Keating tucks into the role of McQuaid, using a calculatedly hearty manner to mask his most cunning chess moves. Sean Gormley's MacBride is sufficiently intriguing that one wishes he had more to do. A very personable young actress named Sarah Street is saddled with the thankless role of Phyllis, Browne's wife, who alternately strikes staunch attitudes and upbraids him for coming home late, after their daughters have been put to bed.

John McDermott's unit set, with its floral wallpaper and leather chairs, stands in for McQuaid and MacBride's offices as well as the Brownes' home. Michael Gottlieb's lighting is both understated and assured, as is M. Florian Staab's sound design; if both of them are made to participate in laughably obvious lighting and sound effects, calling up Browne's tormented memories of his late brother, blame the playwright and director. The projection design, by Chris Kateff, largely feels unnecessary, especially as delivered via a video monitor affixed to the upstage wall, but the images are often evocative. Linda Fisher's costumes are solid period creations.

The subject matter of Rebel in the Soul is sufficiently interesting that one hopes another dramatist will someday tackle it. But if you're going to write a play, for heaven's sake, write a play.

At least Rebel in the Soul has such amenities as plot, character, and a certain amount of action. Samara, Richard Maxwell's new play, now at Soho Rep, is lacking all of these, and much else besides. The plot, if you can call it that, begins at an outpost -- where is not revealed, nor are we told what sort of outpost it is. A young Messenger asks a Supervisor for his payment; he gets a few dollars and a large paper debt, with the promise that he can vastly expand his take if he can collect on it. After knifing the Supervisor to death, the Messenger heads off to do just that.

The debt's trail leads the Messenger to a remote bar run by the Manan -- a word that means different things in Gaelic, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Persian, so don't ask me what its significance is here -- whose only customer, named the Drunk, is also, apparently, his lover. (How they get by in a remote location with no customers is left to you.) The debt the Messenger wants paid was incurred by the Manan's father; the Manan has no interest in paying it. This leads to some truly stupefying exchanges, their main point of interest being why the Messenger addresses everyone as "sirrah," as if he has just been beamed in from Shakespeare's Globe. Called a bully by the Messenger, the Drunk says, "I don't mind really, I deal with bullies. I dealt with them. My father always told me how to deal with them. He said, When you look at them. He said, When you -- if they bother you, you just...aw, you're not really listening to me." The Drunk also says to Manan, "Someday, I will ask you to marry me, and I know what you will say. You will say 'no,' because you and I both know, there is no need for it. And I understand: Life is going to play out in the same way, right?"

Eventually, there is another murder and the body is transported back to the outskirts of a city -- do I need to add that it is unidentified? -- and the survivors run into two guys named Cowboy and Beast, and their elderly mother, Agnes, who happens to be...But no, I won't say. If you happen to attend Samara, you deserve one moment of surprise, even if it doesn't really surprise.

There was a moment -- really a couple of seconds -- when I thought Samara, with its exotic title and rather attenuated revenge plot, was going for the sort of stripped-down sense of conflict you might find in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. But then the actors opened their mouths and all such expectations were instantly dispelled. I have heard some of Maxwell's fans insist that the problem with Samara was that he ceded the direction to Sarah Benson, Soho Rep's artistic director, leaving him unable to impose his signature style on the production. I don't know about that; I think the actors are making a good faith attempt at conjuring the signature affectless line readings of Maxwell's productions. I can certainly say that these are some of the flattest, most stilted performances I have seen since maybe forever -- so much so that I began to wonder if Samara might not be a kind of Ed Wood effort for the stage.

The marquee attraction of this production is the musician and songwriter Steve Earle. Why Maxwell and/or Benson sought the participation of this self-described "master musical storyteller" is difficult to divine, for he is given no opportunity to display such gifts. He acts as the narrator, reading the stage directions in an emotionless manner consistent with the general level of performance; his musical contribution appears to be a series of dirge-like tones played on uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) accompanied by subterranean rattles delivered by a percussionist. Just when you think the entire experience has finally arrived at some conclusion -- ninety minutes has rarely stretched itself over such a vast expanse of psychological time -- the cast returns not for a curtain call, but to take part in a choreographed sequence that looks rather like a convention of Morris dancers who have dropped in, perhaps en route to a convention.

As designed by Louisa Thompson, Samara unfolds in an environment -- stage, walls, and seats -- made of some kind of interconnected plastic building modules; given the utter vagueness regarding time and place, I suppose this is as good an idea as anything else. It is lit rather interestingly by Matt Frey, who, among other things, uses LED battens to backlight the walls with different color treatments. The costumes, by Junghyun Georgia Lee, mostly consist of appalling-looking rags -- a hint, I suppose, of the characters' fallen states; the character of Cowboy is dressed in a manner -- no shirt, but black fringed leather vest and black-and-white boots -- that would have fit in just fine in a Village leather bar in the late seventies. I'm not entirely sure Palmer Hefferan's sound design was working the night I attended; the actors are miked, and there were distinct differences in their sound levels, often from line to line, to no discernible purpose. I continue to wish that the practice of miking actors in such tiny theatres would cease.

Maxwell has his defenders, so you may consider this review a bulletin sent by an unbeliever. Yet something tells me that even his hardest-core fans will find this to be something of a trial. You can only strip away so many fundamentals of drama before there is nothing left. This is one appointment in Samara you can confidently miss. -- David Barbour

(19 April 2017)

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