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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 29, 2023

John Keating and Mary Wiseman
Photo by Carol Rosegg
A word of advice: Before seeing Translations, the opening volley in Irish Repertory Theatre's season-long (Brian) Friel Project, show up early. To get maximum impact out of this beguiling little play, you'll want to read most of the program first.

That's because Translations is set in a very specific time and place. And unless you're a Hibernian scholar, you'll need to acquaint yourself with Irish history, Friel career history, production history, and an Irish glossary. This one's really Irish, even for Irish Rep.

It takes place in Ballybeg–there are lots of Ballybegs in Erin, though this one's fictional and the setting for several Friel works–in 1833. The quiet little hamlet is Irish-speaking, and that doesn't sit well with the British, who are dispensing troops to such places to redraw the local maps and anglicize the names. That doesn't stop the locals from maintaining a "hedge school" (see, I said you needed a glossary), where they're illegally taught Irish history and culture, not to mention, at this one at least, classical literature. The play, Friel said, "has to do with language and only language," and at first that may foment some confusion: When some characters are speaking Irish and some English, but all the actors use English, how can you tell which is which? A recent play, Sanaz Toossi's English, solved the quandary by having the actors speak in unaccented English when conversing among themselves in Iranian and accented when struggling with English. No such device here, and aside from the mental exercise of sussing out who's speaking what, the Irish accents here sometimes run too thick to comprehend.

This hedge school is in an otherwise abandoned barn; Charlie Corcoran's set is simple, though at one point it surprisingly revolves, for no accountable reason. At curtain's rise, if there were a curtain, teaching the class is Manus (Owen Campbell), the gentle son of Hugh (Seán McGinley), the real schoolmaster; Hugh is literate, articulate, and earnest, but also overly fond of the wee nip. Friel, such were theatrical economics in 1980, populates Ballybeg with any number of extraneous characters, but we're primarily concerned with Manus and Hugh; Máire (Mary Wiseman), the lusty local Manus is courting; Captain Lancey (Rufus Collins), leading the British troops; his assistant, Lieutenant Yolland (Raffi Barsoumian), who, in a wonderfully written and played Act One finale, successfully woos Máire, though they can't converse; Owen (Seth Numrich), another son of Hugh's, returning from lucrative wanderings, now Lancey's chief translator; and Jimmy Jack (John Keating), the closest thing to a Greek chorus, and, in fact, so enamored of Greek mythology that he virtually lives within it.

There's a lot of small talk, yes; that tends to happen in Friel. But also a constant undercurrent of tensions: How thoroughly will Ballybeg accept the British canceling of their culture? What will happen if they don't? Are we to take Lancey's initial cordiality for real? And as Yolland comes to embrace not just Máire but these new surroundings, what will be the repercussions?

Act One rolls elegantly by, bathed in Friel's rich language and weighty with metaphor; despite Friel's "language and only language" protestations, the struggle to communicate represents much larger conflicts. Act Two introduces several ambiguities, some of which I had a hard time following: Where has Yolland run off to, and why? Why are the Brits so incensed about it, threatening the sort of savagery we're now seeing in Russia-Ukraine/Israel-Gaza? Who are these oft-mentioned Donnelly twins? And what are we to make of the placid ending, with a drunken Hugh declaiming Virgil's "Aeneid," amid such tumult?

Neatly resolved it's not, but Translations is supremely atmospheric, with bracing arguments over language, history, and cultural assimilation, or lack thereof. While celebrating resistance, with the language symbolizing a larger nationalism and pride of history, it hints at possible reconciliation. It's rich, and instructive, in classical references. And we like a lot of these Ballybeggers.

In a capable if unremarkable cast, Wiseman's earthy Máire and Keating's off-in-his-own-world Jimmy Jack stand out. We might have expected a more charismatic Yolland than Barsoumian, and Owen Laheen's Doalty, a local young busybody, has a piercing adolescent voice that pulls focus. I also wondered what Campbell's Manus was doing with a 1969 haircut. No complaints about Doug Hughes' sensitive direction (his father, Barnard, played Hugh in 1981), which never allows the action to flag, but lets us savor Friel's lush vernacular.

The references to "sweet smell" (of potato blight–the great famine hasn't happened yet, but it's imminent), "poteen" (hooch), and "the road to Sligo" (the Irish Rebellion of 1798) come thick and fast, and you may wonder at times why Friel has stocked the stage with so many Ballybeg residents who affect the action so little. No matter. The clash over culture and colonialism and native tongue feels real and eternally relevant, and the rural-Ireland atmosphere is so redolent, you can practically smell the fresh earth. With Translations, Irish Rep's Friel Project is off to a more than solid start.

Through December 3, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street
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