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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Playboy of the Western World: Charming Classic of Humorous Irish Storytelling

Also see Bob's review of Nunsense II: The Second Coming


Emma O'Donnell and
Patrick Toon

One hundred seven years ago when Dublin's Abbey Theatre produced the premiere of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, Irish nationalists carried their anger out from the Abbey Theatre and rioted in the streets. In 1911, when Playboy reached New York, there were disturbances from hecklers in its opening night audience. Apparently, their ire was raised by the portrayal of the denizens of the county Mayo village as fools, and its satiric ridicule of masculine warriors who are widely regarded as heroes (Christy Mahon was played by a three foot tall comic in the original Abbey Theatre production). However, Playboy always has been regarded as a great landmark in Irish stage literature for both its take on the hero worship of brutish warriors and its robust humor. I doubt that any of today's theatergoers will have even an inkling that Synge's skewering of the hero worship of the macho male would ever have caused controversy. For today's theatergoer, however, The Playboy of the Western World remains a formidably funny and entertaining evening in the theatre.

One night, Christopher (Christy) Mahon, a slight young man, stumbles into a public house (tavern) in a village on the coast of County Mayo. Filled with fear, dirty and disheveled, he announces that he has been on the run for eleven days, ever since murdering his father by bashing him in the head with a loy which is an Irish spade employed for potato farming. ("He was a dirty man, God forgive him, and he getting old and crusty, the way I couldn't put up with him at all ... I buried him then. Wasn't I digging spuds in the field?") Entranced by the foolish Christy's story, the pub-keeper Michael James Flaherty and the villagers offer him asylum among them. To them, Christy is a brave hero, bold and forthright in his decisive action and his telling of it. Michael James' daughter Margaret (known as Pegeen Mike to one and all) is an earthy sort, engaged to marry Shawn Keogh, an extremely timid straight-laced lad. However, Pegeen now sets her cap for Shawn, as does the Widow Quin and all the other lasses about.

The next morning, with her father's blessing, Pegeen succumbs to Christy's romantic blandishments and agrees to marry him. All is upended when Christy's father turns up battered but alive and in pursuit of his son ("It's the walking spirit of my murdered da ... Where'll I hide my poor body from that ghost of hell"). Pegeen and the villagers turn on Christy and excoriate him for being a liar and a coward. Motivated by his determination to win back the affection and the admiration of Pegeen and the villagers, Christy grabs hold of a loy and chases his father from the tavern and again bashes him in the head. Only this time the villagers (including Pegeen) are fearful of being implicated in his crime, and they set about to hang Christy for it. I'll tell you no more, other than to note that Pegeen foolishly concludes in regard to Christy, " ... I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World."

Izzie Steele (Pegeen) conveys robust strength and amused conviviality as a physically formidable, independent young woman who is prepared to accept a wan suitor in the absence of the availability of a more temperamentally suitable one. The likeable Steele is both funny and poignant in her enthusiasm for the newly arrived Christy, who is not as suitable for her as she foolishly thinks. Matt Sullivan as Pegeen's father is cut from the same cloth as his daughter. Even as he tries to exercise dominance over Pegeen, Sullivan's robust and convivial Michael James always makes apparent his need and affection for her.

Michael A. Newcomer (Christy) captures all the humor of an impetuously violent (not brave) farm boy whose uncontained primitively violent behavior has been handed down generation to generation. Edmond Genest is delightful as his father (Old Mahon), who is a fiercer, even more comic sort. Although it is likely only a matter of time until Christy evolves into a facsimile of his old man.

Prominent among the twelve member acting ensemble are Emma O'Donnell catching our attention as the scheming Widow Quin and James Russell as the comically milquetoast, dully sincere Shawn Keogh, a lad who won't stay alone with Pegeen in her pub for fear of being seen there by the local priest.

The various friends and patrons of Michael James, three additional young single women who have their eye on Christy, and other villagers are played with individuality and many a comic touch by nine additional cast members.

Director Paul Mullins keeps matters spinning at a fast pace, employing knockabout physical comedy for our enjoyment. The company's hearty Gaelic accents add additional delight to the proceedings.

J. M. Synge's most enduring play, The Playboy of the Western World plays best in a high spirited production in which the players appear to be having as much fun as the audience. Mullins and his fine company have succeeded in creating such a production. In the process, The Shakespeare Theatre (NJ) has gotten its 51st season off to a grand start.

The Playboy of the Western World continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday 7:30 PM (except 6/23); Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8PM/ Mats: Saturday, Sunday 2 PM through June 23, 2013 at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.


Photo: Gerry Goodstein

The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge; directed by Paul Mullins
Cast
Margaret Flaherty(Pegeen Mike)…………………...Izzie Steele
Shawn Keogh……………………………………….James Russell
Michael James Flaherty…………………………….Matt Sullivan
Jimmy Farrell………………………………………….Michael Daly
Philly Cullen……………………………………………Patrick Toon
Christopher Mahon……………………….Michael A. Newcomer
Widow Quin………………………………………..Emma O'Donnell
Tara Tansey……………………………………..Madeline Fendrick
Susan Brady……………………………………………..Megan Sass
Honor Blake…………………………………………..Elaine Stenson
Nelly Delaney………………………………………….Sarah Quigley
Old Mahon…………………………………………...Edmond Genest
Townspeople………….Theo McKenna, Isaac Miller, Gray West


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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