A Few Stand-Out Performances Make Live Theatre Workshop's Trio Of Irish Plays Worth The Price Of Admission.
By Dave Irwin
PRESENTING MULTIPLE PLAYS in a single sitting takes a risk. Just as someone has to graduate last in his class at medical school, so it follows that some plays are not as bright as others. With its Sixth Annual Festival of Irish Plays, Live Theatre Workshop gives us one excellent production and two lesser ones. As important as William Butler Yeats is to Irish literature and theatre, not everything he touched was golden. LTW offers one of Yeats' later works, "The Words Upon The Windowpane." Dedicated to cohort-in-drama Lady Gregory, who was also a central figure in Dublin's turn-of-the-century Abbey Theatre, the work is a parlor play for presentation by and among friends.
Long on exposition about his spiritualist belief system and short on plot, one can practically see Yeats writing parts for his non-actor friends in this piece, letting them walk on for a gratuitous line or two. But the short work demands a great deal of its central character, Mrs. Henderson, the medium who hosts the seance which has drawn the motley group. Played with gusto by LTW veteran Monica Kester, she gets to incarnate a 6-year-old child named Lulu, the gruff ghost of Jonathan Swift, Swift's wife Vanessa, and others in a rousing tour-de-force of cascading characterizations.
Kester seems genuinely possessed, changing her voice, posture and expression with each persona, and carrying on a supernaturally spurred argument with herself. The work, directed by Phil O'Hern, is hampered by the awkward and obvious propaganda about Yeats' quirky religious beliefs and his erudite literary criticism of Swift. In addition, there were some atrocious Irish accents that sounded more like glossolalia than Gaelic. Nonetheless, Kester's earnest performance makes "The Words Upon the Windowpane" interesting, if not compelling.
"Spreading the News", a short play by Lady Gregory (born Isabella Augusta Persse), fares worse since it's a one-note joke. The entire plot centers on a simple misunderstanding compounded by local gossip, with a few small jabs at English rule thrown in for good measure. An unfortunate choice with up to 10 characters on stage at the same time, the piece is simply overpopulated for LTW's small in-the-round space. Directed by Heidi Noel Brosek, a fine young actress making her LTW directorial debut here, the action, such as it is, was obscured several times by clusters of actors with their backs to the audience. With its hustle and bustle in a marketplace setting, this would have worked much better on a traditional stage. But even then, the plot is so slight that unless you're a fan of the skillful Irish common folk characterizations that Lady Gregory was noted for, there's no meat here and few potatoes.
The best in the LTW trilogy was easily "The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft." Superbly crafted by one of Ireland's best contemporary playwrights, Hugh Leonard, and skillfully directed by Amy Lehmann-Almquist (who also makes her LTW debut), this piece is worth the price of admission. With only four characters, the one-act work manages to deconstruct a marriage of convenience in the face of Roman Catholic dogma. It features two of LTW's best assets, actors Art Almquist and JoDee Ann Kaser, last seen together in the company's successful production of Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking.
Here they continue their delightful bickering and exquisite timing as Kaser is stuck in the Dublin Airport lounge trying to escape her husband and their loveless relationship. When his own entreaties flounder, Almquist resorts to an inept priest-in-training, played with perfect gawkiness by lanky Mark Hampton. The woefully inexperienced seminarian giving pat advice on life and wedded duties wrongly convinces the wife to do the right thing, or rightfully ensures she'll do the wrong thing, depending on your bias. The synergistic performances and split-second deliveries of Kaser, Almquist and Hampton are hilarious and insightful.
Given its cozy strip mall space, for LTW less is clearly more. As it continues to scour Irish theatre for works which make sense to American audiences for this annual event, let's hope it mines more gems as charming as "Late Arrival." While several performances stood out for their skill and timing, with 20 performers in the three productions, to put it kindly, acting skills varied considerably. Some intensive dialect coaching would also be a wise investment, as several were downright incomprehensible. "The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft" made the evening worthwhile, sandwiched between the two lesser works by better known authors.
The Sixth Annual Festival of Irish Plays continues through Sunday, May 16, at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10, with a $1 discount for seniors and students. For reservations and information, call 327-4242.
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