This review was originally published to Broadway World on October 5, 2016.
As the curtain rises on The Plough and the Stars, Sean O'Casey's four act tragedy about political turmoil in early 20th century Dublin, the cast is staring directly at the audience, the lighting is a blistering white and Irish Rock is blaring. It's clear before the first line is spoken this won't be the same play we read in Irish Lit.
Playwright Sean O'Casey's portrait of the working-class life in Dublin frames the months before and after the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. The virtue of the Rising- a nationalist lead revolution to defeat British rule in Ireland - has been largely contested by historians. The value of bloodshed is left with us as the lights cut to black at the play's end, but O'Casey is focused on representing a society caught in the heat of the moment when logic and rational reflection is not an option. Playwright O'Casey casts a wide net around Dublin's political uprising by using the mundane simplicity of the working class characters to comment on the tumultuous climate. O'Casey's focus on the individual citizens involved in a greater nationwide protest simultaneously makes the play feel equal parts small and large.
Now celebrating its 90th anniversary, The Plough and the Stars has been given a reimagined revival by The Abbey Theatre, Ireland's National Theatre and is on tour at The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA until October 9th. This Brechtian inspired production is as alien as it is fresh and reminds us of a plightful world outside of our current political climate. Parallels could easily be drawn from turn of the century Ireland to 2016 America, but that's not the story The Abbey Theatre or director Sean Holmes are interested in telling. Not everything on the American Stage needs a path back to us. The Abbey's approach is more vast and profound as evidenced in an early line "There's no such thing as an Irishman, or an Englishman, or a German or a Turk; we're all only human bein's."
Just like we've seen in other recent revivals of classic plays, director Sean Holmes approaches the text as a new play without any clout attached to it. It's a freeing experience and is the type of creative formula that allows for risk-taking without the fear of ruining the expectations of seasoned theatregoers. Holmes's approach begins with trashing any stage directions depicting a sense of realism. His strokes of expressionism reinforce character obstacles effectively while exposing American audiences to the results when the conventional rules of theatre are obliterated. Every design element is a bold anachronism (bold enough to give some practitioners hives), but these fringe elements combined provide a commentary on the last 90 years of Ireland's history not found before.
The Celtic tunes written into the script become rock concerts and scene transitions make no effort to mask the mechanics of the set. Lighting by Paul Keogan is lead by bright fluorescent tubing and also features abrupt shifts in color. Catherine Fay's costumes are a mix of past and present, ie: The Young Covey, a laborer, is now a fast food worker and acts as a stark juxtaposition to Jack Clitheroe's authentic military uniform.
John Bauser's industrial set is the most obvious element of this new world and captures the rundown living conditions with a three story scaffolding unit (wait until you see that structure move!), stage flats, and some scattered furniture. The set gets as bruised and beat up as much as the characters inhabiting it. The stage becomes littered with propaganda pamphlets in act one and empty pint glasses during act two. The stage is smeared with blood as a dying body is dragged offstage in act three, and the entire world literally turns on its side in act four.
Sean Holmes makes sure The Plough and the Stars is not upstaged by its technical elements and includes moments of pause throughout O'Casey's dense script. In an early scene between Nora and Jack Clitheroe, the stakes are high as the two argue the purpose of war, but Holmes slams the brakes and adds a pregnant pause as Nora sits in silence to watch Jack change into his uniform before joining the revolution. Holmes also injects a Brechtian ethos by having characters break in the middle of scenes to directly address the audience. Not only do these characters live in O'Casey's tumultuous war torn world, but having them speak with us about the perils of the revolution without an option to escape it adds an added layer of tragedy. Holmes's comprehensive command as a director breathes clarity throughout and helps the audience climb over the challenge of following along when the rich Irish accents land onto our ears with an unfamiliar ring.
In addition to the production elements, The Abbey sends along its best actors to round out this international success. The cast of 14 deliver fully developed characters posing as the only realistic element on stage. Hilda Fay as Bessie Burgess, Kate Stanley Brennan as Nora Clitheroe, and Ciaran O'Brien as The Young Covey are standouts among a tight-knit ensemble of talented artists. Ms. Fay devours her character's meaty arch and never misses an opportunity to discover the dark humor of Bessie's circumstances. Her choices at the top of the show fool us into believing she's a villain, but it's thrilling to watch her evolve before our eyes as we begin to root for her. Kate Stanley Brennan's Nora takes us on a different journey after poise is mistakenly attached to her character in act one. Watching her tip in the other direction towards act four is devastating.
The American Repertory Theatre's mission is devoted to expanding the boundaries of theatre by collaborating with artists around the world. Last season, A.R.T. brought Headlong Theatre from the U.K. to give us 1984, an experience that has remained burned into my subconscious. With it's polemic political message, both 1984 and The Plough and the Stars have pulled back the myopic lense through which we usually watch theatre by giving us more to examine than other Boston premiers this year. This must have been what epic theatre felt like during Bertolt Brecht's time.