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San Francisco by Richard Connema

By the Bog of the Cats
Opens at San Jose Repertory Theater


San Jose Repertory Theatre opens its 2001-02 season with the American premier of Marina Carr's By The Bog of the Cats, starring Academy Award Winner Holly Hunter as an Irish Medea. If Euripides were Irish and live today he probably would have written this play. The production has a contemporary setting in the dark, marshy bogs of the Irish midlands. It is a rapacious drama of the love and revenge of the "Traveler," Hester Swane, and her fateful attempt to reclaim her lover, her child and her home.

Having been cast aside for a woman of greater wealth, the jeopardous and hypnotizing Hester is on a collision course with a terrible decision which will affect every character in the drama. There are some excellent Irish characters in this heavy drama like the old Catwoman, a prophetess and The Ghost Fancier. The playwright's language is modest and lyrical. There is some wonderful Irish poetry in the scenes of the second act.

It takes a while to get this play started and interesting. In the first scene Hester, played by Holly Hunter, is seen dragging a dead black swan on the fog covered stage. She wanders around speaking Irish phrases I could not make any sense of. The blind Cat Woman then enters. She looks like one of the witches from Macbeth. I thought for a minute we were going to get the "Toil and Trouble" speech or that two more witches would enter. She carries a rat that she proceeds to eat. I was now completely lost. I think the main reason is that the actors have the Irish accents down pat but the speech pattern is much too fast. The words come out like machine gun fire and there is no inflection in their voices.

The opening scenes are very cumbersome. However, once into the meat of the play, the scenes play better. The voices become clearer and the timing improves. The scene between the grandmother, superbly played by Carol Mayo Jenkins, and the young 11 year-old daughter of Hester, played by Jillian Lee Wheeler, is a gem of acting. There are other great scenes in the play like the opening of the second act at a large wedding dining table that could have come out of A Little Night Music. With all the characters on the stage, it is the height of Irish wit and has the warmth of an Irish folktale.

Holly Hunter gives a tour de force performance in this production. She portrays every emotion that a actress of her stature can master. She is sly, romantic, humorous, earthly, sensual and vindictive. It is a role that every great actress would love to obtain. The actress's moves are a work of art. She is mesmerizing every time she appears on stage.

Gordon MacDonald, as Hester's ex-lover and husband to be of Josie, is strong in this role. He reminds me in voice and manner of Stephen Rae and his acting is top drawer. J.G. Hertzler has the right amount of villainy and an astounding voice as well. Carol Mayo Jenkins is a gem in this production. Besides the lovely scene in the first act with the granddaughter, she is hilarious in the wedding banquet in the second act.

James Carpenter, who is one of our busiest actors in the bay area, has a smaller role as the Ghost Fancier. He does an amazing dance of death with Hester at the end of the drama.

On the flip side of the 2 hour and 30 minute heavy drama, it is a little too long and could be tightened. Some of the scenes are much too long. They become ponderous and even boring with the heavy Irish speech.

The sets are minimal on the large, deep stage with squares coming down from the ceiling, large side panels, and "fog" to give the play an interesting and foreboding look. The lighting is spectacular. This drama would play better in a small theater. Somehow it looses its intimacy on this large, deep stage. Also the projection of the some the actors could be better for those seated in the rear of the theater. The Irish speech should be slowed down a bit in some of the scenes. Direction by Timothy Near is good, and the timing improves once the play gets going.

By the Bog of the Cats plays through October 7. Tickets are scarce but there are some tickets still available. Call (408)367-7255 for more information. The next play is the world premier of ctrl-alt-del which opens on October 20.




Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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