Wrath of the Irish

In productions by the Guthrie and Mixed Blood, history belongs to the rioters

Joe Dowling's affection for Irish actor Milo O'Shea is such that he has dedicated one page of the program for The Plough and the Stars to a starry-eyed reminiscence of a brief childhood encounter with O'Shea. While the thespian may be relatively unknown in the United States, O'Shea is a fine character actor with a history of scene-stealing performances as lovable Irish eccentrics in films such as Carry On Cabby and The MatchMaker. Alongside a photograph of his childhood encounter is an effusive note from Dowling explaining that as an Irish boy he "could not imagine, even in his wildest dreams, that the day would come when, as colleagues, we would work together in America on one of the most famous plays of the Irish repertoire."

O'Shea plays Fluther Good, a knockabout carpenter with dual penchants for liquor and alliterative sentences; it is one of the showiest roles in a play of showy roles. Playwright Sean O'Casey's script, which follows the fates of a half-dozen characters during Dublin's 1916 Easter Rising, also includes a creepy, hollow-eyed girl and her gleefully morbid mother, a noxious socialist, a sword-wielding old man who wanders the stage in his undergarments, and a gaunt woman who moans Biblical-sounding eulogies to her fallen son.

While O'Casey subtitled his script "A Tragedy," the playwright (b. 1884) grew up reading and acting in the semi-hysterical melodramas of Dion Boucicault. O'Casey's rollicking characters would seem perfectly at home in a play like Boucicault's The Shaughraun, drunkenly poaching pheasants from the Irish countryside while whispering comical asides directly to the audience. But where Boucicault would have treated a boozy braggart such as Fluther as a figure of fun, O'Casey raises him to near-heroic proportions. Director Dowling and O'Shea seize upon this opportunity to build semi-epic scenes around the character, such as a fight in a pub.

You talking to me? Milo O'Shea (right) as the great grandstander Fluther Good
You talking to me? Milo O'Shea (right) as the great grandstander Fluther Good

Apparently, if there is an indigenous Irish martial art, it consists of bellowing threateningly in a bar until the bartender takes notice, then lunging for your opponent, and finally complaining loudly when the bartender quickly breaks up the brawl. Fluther's fight, as staged by Dowling, is an elongated act of bravura, as the old man rises to defend the insulted pride of a prostitute. "There's no necessity to flutther yourself when you're with Fluther," he consoles the woman, before turning to her harasser. "Now," he warns menacingly, "you're temptin' Providence when you're temptin' Fluther!"

O'Shea walks through this scene on the balls of his feet, ridiculously puffed up for a frail-seeming old man, eyes and teeth flashing as he raises his fists in preparation for a fight he knows will never happen. It is a scene of fustian glory, and O'Casey uses it as a counterpoint to the grimmer oratory in the streets outside, where members of the Irish Citizen Army prepare for their suicidal uprising against the English. "When war comes to Ireland," a speaker calls out, "she must welcome it as she would welcome the angel of God!"

The second half of O'Casey's play is drenched in gore as his characters die, go mad, or watch loved ones fall around them. O'Casey fills these scenes with mock heroics and stupid gestures, fully exploring his profound ambivalence regarding the events of the Easter Rising. The Guthrie mounts this crisis like the small war it was: Explosions rock the stage, characters collapse and cry out from gunshots to the gut, characters steal children's prams to fill with looted merchandise--and in the midst of all O'Shea's bluster, Fluther slips away. He spends the last scenes half hidden behind a deck of cards, eerily still as he doles out both cards and advice to his friends while the English army burns the city around him. Dowling has found in O'Shea's performance the heart of the story, and even in a cast that includes magnificent performers such as Rosaleen Linehan and Sally Wingert, he saves the last ovation for O'Shea.

Audiences at the 1926 Dublin opening of The Plough and the Stars were so outraged by its treatment of the (then-recent) Easter Rising that they rioted in the streets--a noisy public demonstration over the complex politics involved in representing history. The second half of Mixed Blood Theatre's Bee-Luther-Hatchee is another riot, precipitated by a similar issue. Onstage, two actors verbally (and occasionally physically) tear into each other, arguing about who has the right to tell the history of the African-American experience. This is sensibly an important issue for playwright Thomas Gibbons, a white author who has written repeatedly about black Americans.

The first half of the 1999 script is entirely exposition, as a young black publisher (played by Regina Williams) travels to the South to meet the septuagenarian author of a book of memoirs. This book, we learn, telling of a black woman's experiences roaming the country during the first half of the last century, has found a surprisingly large and devoted audience of readers. Like the readers, the publisher is profoundly moved by the complexity and authenticity of the story, and she is appalled when she learns details about the true authorship of the book.

The second half of the play could have come off as academic--it is, fundamentally, just a long debate about the nature of fiction. Thanks both to Gibbons's passion for the issue and director Warren Bowles's brisk (and sometimes violent) staging, however, the dispute is enormously compelling. At the performance I attended, the audience leaned forward with their mouths open, as though intending to join the debate, and talked about it long after leaving their seats. Not a riot, but then perhaps that's just as well.

 
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