KPBS AIRDATE: March 17, 2006
Grab yer Guinness and go. There isn’t a better time than this month of St. Paddy’s Day to see one of the masterworks of Irish theater… John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.” When it opened at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907, the play incited riots. The audience threw eggs and potatoes at the actors, because they thought the dark comic drama was politically incendiary, demeaning to Irish peasants, exceeding the limits of decency and perpetuating negative stereotypes. But over the past century, “Playboy” has shifted from controversy to classic.
Set in a remote corner of the windswept West of Ireland, the plot concerns a feckless stranger who staggers into a small town, saying he’s just murdered his abusive father. The villagers view his story as an epic tale of courage, and they turn him into a hero. But by the end of the play, though he rises to their heroic expectations, when his story is discredited, they turn on him, viciously. A series of often-comic situations steeped in tragedy, “Playboy” is a searing exploration of identity, hypocrisy, self-delusion, lost opportunity, and perhaps most relevant of all, the fickle nature of celebrity.
Up in North County, wonderful things are being done with Synge’s masterwork by New Village Arts, the plucky little company that just signed a lease on a permanent homebase in Carlsbad. They’ve created a weathered, wooden pub, lit in sepia tones and filled with a dramatic Irish mix of alcohol, poetry, wit and violence. And of course, more than a bit of blarney.
Co-founders Kristianne Kurner and Francis Gercke have skillfully co-directed an excellent array of actors, including themselves. Kurner brings a surprising sexual energy to the typically dour, aging Widow Quin, and Gercke is a hoot as the not-quite-dead father who keeps coming back from his bludgeonings, bloody but unbowed. Joshua Everett Johnson takes a dazzling emotional journey as Christy, the witless stranger who evolves, under the adoration of the villagers, from stuttering idiocy to menacing intensity. He becomes positively silver-tongued when he woos the publican’s saucy daughter, Pegeen Mike, dynamically portrayed by the beautifully expressive Jessica John. Her anguished look of disenchantment, loss and despair ends the play on a heartbreaking note.
Almost everything is pitch-perfect here. But the directors have tried so hard to get every element exactly right, they’ve made the hearty Irish accents too strong to be consistently intelligible. Whole chunks go beyond comprehension, and it’s a pity to miss one word of Synge’s rich, lyrical language. The play still has a lot to say to us, and this production says a lot about New Village Arts and its Actors Studio-trained founders. They’ve got the skill – and the luck – o’ the Irish.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.