03 April 2016

Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel

Brian Friel is one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary dramatists. I’ve read several of his plays, and seen a production of Faith Healer a few years ago. So when M.T. Pockets Theatre announced they were producing Dancing at Lughnasa, I was keen on the prospect. Friel, like many other contemporary Irish playwrights, challenges stereotypes and idealizations of Irish history and culture, complicating all too often romanticized images of the Emerald Isle.

Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is set within a frame narrative narrated by Michael, who looks back on the events in the Mundy home in Ballybeg in 1936. The action centers on the troubles encountered by the five Mundy sisters: Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris. The 1930s was a time of major change in Ireland, with the coming of industrialization (which puts Agnes and Rose out of work as glove knitters), and changes in the role of Catholicism under the newly independent Irish Free State. For the poor Mundy sisters it is a time marked on the one hand by wonderful new technologies, like their temperamental wireless radio named Marconi, but also a time of economic crisis, which weighs most heavily on Kate. Additionally, their malaria-stricken brother, Uncle Jack, has just returned from decades of missionary work in Uganda. And the other unexpected guest in the house is Gerry Evans, unmarried father of Chris’ child.

By and large, M.T. Pockets’ production—directed by Seret Cole—did a good job conveying 1930s Ireland, particularly in the set. M.T. Pockets is a relatively small black box, and the set of the Mundy kitchen offered the performers little room for the frequent dancing around the table, the ironing board, and the range. The physical layout of the space (the little space there was) conveyed the trapped and hemmed in atmosphere that hovers beneath the surface of the ostensibly cheerful Mundy home. A tension that periodically broke through the surface in fights—like when Kate prohibits the family attending the Harvest Dance—or breakdowns.

The acting was generally strong, with particularly good performances from Mara Monaghan (Maggie), Zabrian Evans (Rose), Gretchen Ross (Chris), and Tawnya Drake (Kate). Each of these characters have strong personalities and each of the actors brought those distinct characteristics to the fore. For instance, Maggie spends much of the play comforting her sisters, and Monaghan moved well between the contrasting emotional roles of cheery jokester and singer to shoulder-to-cry-on when Kate confesses her fears about losing her job and not being able to support the family (in what I thought was Drake’s strongest scene). Evans gave an excellent performance as the “simple” Rose (as the program calls her). Of the family she has the most exuberance for life, and Evans’ jaunty dancing and tendency to talk too loudly and joyfully conveyed that vivacity, even when it clashed with the general mood of the kitchen.

One sticking point with the performance was the use of Irish accents by non-Irish performers. Although Friel’s play is written to convey a particular time and situation in Ireland, I often with that actors would avoid fake accents. Some of the actors did fairly well—Monaghan, Evans, and Ross particularly—but many of them were either in part or as a whole unconvincing. Part of the problem is that Irish speech has a different rhythm than English/American speech, a rhythm rooted in Gaelic rather than in Old English, which is a branch of German. So it’s not simply a question of pronouncing the words like an Irish person, but of pronouncing the entirety of language in the rhythm, tone, and inflection of an Irish person (and particularly the accent of County Donegal, in Ulster). In particular, Trisha Hein (playing Agnes) had the most difficulty putting on a convincing brogue, and Joes Zavilla (playing the transplanted Welshman Gerry Evans) conveyed neither Wales nor Ireland in his accent.

Whether it was an accent difficulty or just a performance choice, Michael’s frame narration (played by Gregg Lowely) was the weakest point in the entire show. Lowely gave Michael’s lines with an…awkward pausing…between the clauses…somewhat like…William Shatner. Each clause was followed by a pause, rather than flowing organically from one phrase to the next. And the awkwardness of Lowely’s gestures—continually moving his hands between pockets, tie, lapels, etc.—added to the sense that he was uncomfortable with the lines and/or the accent. Little about Lowely’s performance conveyed that this was a deliberate character recalling events and trying to find or ascribe meaning to them.

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