If you take the atmosphere of a Sean O’Casey play and mix in vaudeville/music hall shtick, you will come close to imagining Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage, now being staged by The Irish Repertory Theater. It features an assortment of odd characters at a disreputable boarding house in 1960 British occupied Dublin. The play jumps, in the twinkling of an eye, from the chilling fear surrounding the impending execution of an eighteen-year-old to the loving sentimentality of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” It tells the tale of a kidnapped British soldier held captive by a former IRA commander and an assortment of misfits in this house of the seriously disenfranchised.
Our very young confused soldier is awaiting his own execution by the IRA in retaliation for the planned execution of a young Irish rebel. You have to see this play to understand how this setting can provide an opportunity for burlesque comedy routines, lilting Irish ballads, music hall songs, lots of Irish dancing as well as terror. Only the courageous playwright, Brendan Behan, who spent many years in prison for IRA activity and died prematurely of severe alcoholism and diabetes at the young age of 41, would dare write such an off-center play on such a politically sensitive subject. The Hostage is a very dark comedy with music that predictably ends tragically. It is truly a tale of the Irish Nation.
The play’s director, Charlotte Moore, has decided not to skimp on this production. The sixteen-member cast could easily fill the stage of most Broadway theaters. Unfortunately, the Irish Repertory Theater is a rather small space. At times, cast members waited in the audience for their turn to go on stage. This overcrowding may have inadvertently caused some intrusive overacting in an indulgent attempt to be noticed. Particularly problematic was Terry Donnally’s Meg, the good hearted, tough-as-nails boarding house manager. So loud and shrill was her performance, that had she been acting at the Met, I suspect she could have been heard from start to finish in the balcony. With no modulation to her performance, her bitter ballad about the historic cruelty of English soldiers to the Irish people comes across as just another song rather than the point of the whole play.
More successful are Erik Singer, the confused kidnapped British soldier who suddenly finds himself on the brink of execution and Derdriu Ring, who plays a young Irish serving girl who loves him for the night. Their sweet interchange adds a brief, much needed quiet to the generally frenetic atmosphere of the play. Barry McNabb, as Rio Rita, and his boyfriend, Princess Grace, played by Stephen X. Ward, are particularly effective as they jig their way through this live-and-let-live boarding house for the down and out. Many other strange characters make their appearances throughout the production. They squabble, they have sex (paid and unpaid), they preach and they drink. However, they all agree that Ireland must free itself from British rule and no matter what the motivation, the worst shame is to be an informer. This does not bode well for our lonely, captive British soldier.
My compliments to N. Josepth DeTullio, the set designer, who somehow manages to make a small stage seem almost large enough for a troop of 16. Also exceptional were the beautiful singing by the Irish tenor, Ciaran Sheehan, and the excellent piano accompaniment by Mark W. Hartman.
The Irish Repertory Theater has given us the rare opportunity to see a production of Behan’s important work. Although the performances are somewhat uneven and the play itself crowded onto too small a stage, for those of us who have grown to love the Irish theater for it’s beautiful rich language and thought provoking ideas, this unusual, off-beat dark and satiric comedy does not disappoint.