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The Freedom of the City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cara Seymour, James Russell, and Joseph Sikora.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Brian Friel wrote The Freedom of the City nearly four decades before the Occupy movement ignited (and fizzled), but watching the show in 2012 it's nearly impossible to tell. As the Irish Repertory Theatre's new mounting of the 1973 play proves, some rumblings about the state of the world—and the people who either run or merely observe it—are timeless. Activists and innocents so jumbled that one can no longer be told from another, insufferable academics who are sure they know better than anyone or anything else, and courts where everything is determined except actual fact or justice all play crucial roles, and do so sparklingly.

Under Ciarán O'Reilly's direction, what emerge most strongly are the external concerns, the ink that would be used to scribe the story in history. The exact action of the play is fictional, but based as it is on the 1972 Bloody Sunday riots, when the British Parachute Regiment shot and killed more than a dozen people in Derry, Northern Ireland, and Friel's own keen dramatic instincts, it often plays as intimately immediate as contemporary docuplays like The Laramie Project or The Exonerated.

Those comparisons, by the way, are not inapt. The Freedom of the City is structured much the same way, developing as a kaleidoscope of images swirling around a day in 1970 when three protestors were gunned down after emerging from the local Guildhall. Among the most visible figures are the judge (John C. Vennema) who's been charged with sorting out the case once the bodies have accumulated, an American sociologist (Christa Scott-Reed) all too happy to explain the human economic underpinnings of the situation, a balladeer (Clark Carmichael) with an uncanny ability to conjure up instant songs of protest, and the brigadier (Craig Wroe) who's at the forefront of defusing or dismantling the Guildhall mess.

Friel focuses most, of course, on the three inside, who end up trapped there after becoming lost in the smoke and tear gas that choked out the march in which they were participating. Michael (James Russell) and Skinner (Joseph Sikora) are active protestors, the former of the passive-resistance variety and the latter much more aggressive, and Lily (Cara Seymour) is the mother of 11 and wife to an unemployed husband who marches for a better world—even if she can't identify exactly what it should be. They wrap themselves in the luxury (and free alcohol) of the mayor's chamber before exiting with their hands up, trusting that, for them, the system will work.

Although it's a primary point of Friel's that it doesn't and it can't, at least under these circumstances, The Freedom of the City for the most part avoids overt criticism of any side, showing instead that it's the breakdown of communication between the two groups that is most responsible for what occurs. O'Reilly expertly points this up with a breathless opening montage that not only sets up the conflict, but disorients you enough that you temporarily lose your own ability to discern law from lawlessness. And as the story unfolds over the next two hours, he maintains this instability with the help of Charlie Corcoran's instant-change set and Michael Gottlieb's piercing lighting.

You're so completely thrust into the tension that the less-effective moments are almost acceptable losses. The least successful moments of this production occur when it tries to embrace the personal side of the struggle. O'Reilly's staging here is fuzzier and more static, as though it's not clear how much (if any) is supposed to be as cogent as what's happening outside. As for the actors, Russell, Sikora, and Seymour cut compelling figures, but don't deliver especially vivid portrayals. Russell's Michael is too laid back, too lackadaisical, to have believably joined the march in the first place. Much of Sikora's rage seems projected and forced, and doesn't give way easily to the moments of levity that necessarily lighten the character at key points. Seymour comes across as the most genuine, but lacks the sumptuous maternal nature that would really drive home the tragedy.

If this leaves things a bit off-kilter, the supporting performances and the staging are more than evocative enough to compensate. Sliding effortlessly from thoughtful analysis to edge-of-your-seat suspense, The Freedom of the City never fails to highlight the rage, the recklessness, and the regret that so frequently define controversies of this nature. Friel doesn't pretend to have the answers for any of these dilemmas, but asks the questions with such brutal emotional efficiency that, much more than was the case with the now-defunct Occupiers, you're inspired to keep the discussions about them alive.

The Freedom of the City
Through November 25
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets and current schedule

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