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AN IRISH CHEKHOV, MANY TIMES REMOVED

  

picture - AristocratsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published February 13, 2009

 

Aristocrats

now playing Off Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theater

through March 29

 

Charlotte Moore lavishes such loving care on every production she directs at the Irish Repertory Theatre that I feel churlish saying that, in the highly-anticipated revival of Brian Friel’s Chekhovian masterpiece Aristocrats, Ms. Moore has come up empty. And it’s hard to say exactly what it is that went awry. The play, about the last days of the inhabitants of Ballybeg Hall (an estate in Donegal that has seen better days), is one of Friel’s best. The cast that Ms. Moore has assembled is excellent, each and every one of them up to the task of bringing the play to life.

 

picture - AristocratsThe problem starts with James Morgan’s set, which captures neither the ruin nor the grandeur of Ballybeg Hall and, if he kept painting a mural from the Irish Rep all the way to Donegal, he wouldn’t have done the job. The rot and decay, as well as the fabled beauty, must be visible for us to understand just where we are and why it is talked about at such length. A good set design is crucial to any play, but, in a play like Aristocrats, it is absolutely essential. And then, from the beginning, the air surrounding Ballybeg Hall seems somewhat rarefied, as if the absence of place, which the set should have provided, has kept the characters – who live there or want to escape from there or who have returned there for a wedding – at a distance. It isn’t until the play is half over, and Judith, the daughter who has been taking care of Ballybeg Hall’s dying patriarch, sits down, her body anchored in a palpable fatigue, and tells, with anger and anguish, the rudimentary details of her everyday life, that the play settles into a world we readily recognize. Lynn Hawley is superb as Judith; she instinctively seems to understand what the rest of the cast is merely playing at: that a play begins to soar only when it touches ground.

 

There, too, is the question of ensemble, which a play like Aristocrats demands, and which gets wrenched out of existence if one character is allowed, in any way, to become its center; and, though John Keating is an excellent actor and a wonderful choice for Casimir, the brother whose life may be total mirage, he seems to brush everything on the stage aside each time he plants his feet firmly on the ground and more or less asks that the play, this time around, be retitled “Casimir, Formerly of Ballybeg Hall.”

 

It is possible that, with time, all of this could coalesce into a more deeply-felt ensemble –

sometimes it’s just a matter of actors working together for a period of time – but, it would come closer a lot sooner if they could just play the play somewhere other than on that impossible set.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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