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Theatre in Review: Alone It Stands (59E59)

Sarah Street. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

"Rugby, that well-known game of Celtic origin." So says one of the characters in On Blueberry Hill, also at 59E59. His point is entirely sarcastic, but don't tell that to the characters of Alone It Stands, almost all of whom are obsessed with the sport. John Breen's play memorializes an event that is, apparently, engraved in the heart of every true Irish fan, namely the 1978 defeat of the All-Blacks, the national team of New Zealand, at the hands of Munster Rugby, based in Limerick. Billed as one of the great upsets in history, it is, in the hands of Breen (who also directed) and a gifted cast, a spirited, funny tale -- at least when it is intelligible.

Breen's script takes a cinematic, wide-angle approach, dramatizing members of both teams, and bringing to life a number of side stories that unfold before, during, and after the game: The characters are eminently well-spoken, many of the episodes are incisively written, and the author often has a lovely way with words. In the middle of the game, following a crucial pass, someone comments, "Earthworms and physics dictate the outcome. Today, even the earthworms are shouting for Munster." A mother-to-be, detailing the contents of the bag she plans to take to the hospital, notes that the contents include "two long flannel Catholic nighties." A young lad, gazing on the pile of objects meant to fuel a giant bonfire, meditates on "the architecture of arson."

With writing like that, you're unlikely to be bored at Alone it Stands, but you may often be a bit baffled. If, like me -- a fairly representative member of the audience in this case -- you have no knowledge of rugby or the sport's history, you may frequently find yourself in a bit of a muddle. Each actor assumes multiple roles, and many times I wasn't clear who was speaking until a couple of minutes into the scene. Adding to the confusion is the uncredited costume design -- Alexander Grover is billed as "design coordinator" -- which dresses the cast in the uniforms of the All-Blacks in Act I and those of the Munster team in Act II; it is often difficult to tell which team member is speaking at any given time.

Besides the fact that we are plunged into the initial situation without any real guidance about the teams and their long-running rivalry, many other details leave one guessing. The cast initially appears chanting in what I think is Maori, a thought that didn't occur to me until well into the play. The tradition of Bonfire Night, as practiced in Ireland, looms large, and its connection to the main narrative seems tenuous indeed. There is much talk about "Garryowen," and whether this refers to a popular Irish folk tune, a star player of the era, or a certain kind of rugby kick I'm still not clear.

Furthermore, the stories that are ganged around the main action are largely anecdotal in nature. Rather than adding to the tension of the game, they function as so many time-outs, providing local color and some laughs but also detracting from the David-and-Goliath story that is the play's strongest drawing card. For a play about such a surprising event, Alone It Stands is remarkably lacking in suspense.

Still, the cast is a pleasure, especially Ed Malone, as, among others, Lanky, a superfan who attends the funeral of a total stranger, hoping to obtain the deceased's tickets to the match, and Donal, a player for Munster, whose moment of triumph is shattered by terrible personal news. David O'Hara is lovely as Gerry, another fan, whose wife's pregnancy -- she is having twins -- is causing him terrible agita. "No child of mine would have the bad manners to be born during an important rugby match," he insists -- a statement that proves to be more bravado than fact. Sarah Street is a charmer as Mary, whose labor pains are ingeniously crossed with the action on the pitch. There isn't a weak link onstage.

Whoever designed the upstage drop depicting the skyline of Limerick did a lovely job, and Michael O'Connor, the lighting designer, gets a remarkable number of looks out of a tiny rig. Alone It Stands offers many moments of delight to even those unschooled in the sport, and those in the know may find themselves in rugby heaven. But it isn't an optimal situation when, following the play, one needs to consult multiple Wikipedia pages to understand what one has just seen. -- David Barbour

(18 January 2019)

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