Here at the edges of the Western World

Looking for meaning behind the brogue in Artists Rep's laughter-laden 'Playboy'

St. Patrick’s Day puzzles me. One day per year, Irish-Americans and nearly everyone else adopt — enthusiastically, often wildly — the otherwise derogatory ethnic stereotypes of the Irish. And no one thinks anything’s amiss. Unless the bar runs out of green beer.

Imagine, for comparison, Americans of all sorts spending Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of abolition, slugging malt liquor, chomping watermelon and running up to one another shouting “Kiss me, I’m black!”

Then again, there’s something liberating about being able to laugh at ourselves and to let others laugh right along.

Laughs come regularly in The Playboy of the Western World, a century-old Irish classic by John Millington Synge, currently playing at Artists Repertory Theatre. So does a kind of self-mockery elevated to celebration.

From left: Amy Newman, Allen Nause, Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb, Michael Mendelson, Jeb Berrier. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Amy Newman, Allen Nause, Chris Murray, Isaac Lamb, Michael Mendelson, Jeb Berrier. Photo: Owen Carey

Playboy is the story of Christy Mahon, a poor farmhand who ducks into a pub in a County Mayo hamlet and, meek though he seems at first, sends a jolt throughout the community. The electric charge he brings is his story: that he has killed his father and is on the run from the police. The locals, apparently hungry for any kind of excitement, are thrilled to meet someone brave and brazen enough to commit parricide. And the more positive attention Christy gets, the more flair he puts into his tale, and the more he’s treated like a celebrity. The women fawn, and a competition for him develops between the publican’s tough-minded daughter, called Pegeen, and the sly Widow Quin.

The arrival of the battered but not dead Old Mahon sends things careening toward a very entertaining kind of chaos. Atop the drone of drunken, meager lives blares a wild melody of violence (with a few grace notes of lust). Having sung Christy’s praises when his murderous mettle was but a well-spun story, the villagers turn against him when he strikes out again and their presence makes them complicit.

Artists Rep artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez stages it all with a good-natured energy and crisp pacing. The action essentially takes place all in the single room of the pub, but Rodriguez makes such creative use of Jack O’Brien’s evocatively shabby set design that we get the sense of an entire neighborhood.

That neighborhood is populated by colorful characters, and Rodriguez has assembled a top-notch cast to embody them, including his predecessor, Allen Nause, as the perpetually soused pub owner, and the redoubtable Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Bill Geisslinger, as Christy’s preternaturally hard-headed Old Mahon. The engine of the play is Christy’s fear of his dad, and Geisslinger gives the elder man a fearsome physicality yet also a suggestion of ghostly mystery — and indestructibility.

As Christy, Chris Murray charts a bumpy progression from callow and cowering to cocky to clear-eyed.  Along the way, he toggles between tender appreciation for Pegeen’s kindness to him and preening at his sudden, strange stardom among the locals.

But even though the play is, on one level, Christy’s oddball coming-of-age story, the emotional weight is carried here by Amy Newman, who gives Pegeen both sharp edges and sweetness, underscored by a sense of long-suppressed yearning.

For all the craft and verve of the production, though, I left puzzled (yes, again) by the play’s reputation as a masterpiece. Critics have lauded it for the extravagantly colorful language, for which Synge drew on the vernacular of Ireland’s rural Atlantic coast.

But that highly idiomatic speech feels like a lost tongue. Perhaps lost to urbanization and mass media, to time and distance; but lost too often here to accent. Assistant director and dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis has taught the cast a credible brogue, but the volume of words, with all their arcane imagery and weirdly swerving grammar, often simply comes too fast to catch.

Then there’s the matter of meaning. Satirical spirit abounds, but to what end? The playwright himself called Playboy of the Western World an “extravaganza” about “the psychic state of the locality,” and that subject was so sensitive when the play premiered in 1907 that Irish nationalists, incensed at what they took as Synge belittling the Irish character, rioted.

But if we’ve no dog in that fight, so to speak, what are we to take from it beyond an evening’s diversion? Is this a comment on the gullibility of rural rubes?  On the foolishness of hero worship or lightly-won celebrity? The romance of violence as an abstraction? The mutability of moral opinion?

Perhaps it is a bit of all that, and the point could be that we all might recognize something of ourselves amid the ignoble crowd  onstage.

In which case, guzzle your green beer and join in.


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