Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Fun Time in the Old Country - "The Shaughraun"

By Judd Hollander

Ah, the classic melodrama. Filled with hissable villains, over the top characters and good-hearted heroes. Where one never doubts that truth, love and humanity will win out. This type of play is not often presented these days, as it takes a sure hand to showcase the work in a way that doesn't go over the line into parody. Fortunately director Charlotte Moore shows she has the perfect touch with the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun, first produced in New York in 1874.

In County Sligo, on the coast of Ireland in 1867, Claire Ffolliott (Allison Jean White) and her cousin Arte O'Neal (Katie Fabel) live in a small cottage, often subsisting on game poached by Conn (Patrick Fitzgerald), the Shaughraun (vagabond) of the title. Arte is in mourning for her love Robert Ffolliott (Kevin O'Donnell), brother of Claire, who was shipped off to a British penal colony in Australia on a trumped-up charge. Now Arte is being pressured by the scheming landlord Corry Kinchela (Sean Gormley) to marry him or he'll seize their home and put them out. Meanwhile, British officer Captain Harry Molineux (Mark Shanahan), arrives to command the local garrison and happens upon the cottage, striking up a conversation with Claire who, despite her deep hatred for all things British, can't help but feel a deep affection for this dashing solider, especially when he stand up to Kinchela in support of the two ladies. It's a feeling which is quite mutual on Molineux's part.

Conn soon reveals he has been away from home these several months because he has gone to Australia and freed Robert from his captivity. Yet Robert is still a wanted man and Kinchela, the person who framed the young man in the first place so he could steal his inheritance, is determined to see Robert hanged before the truth is revealed. As for Robert, he believes this schemer to be a true and loyal friend, despite what everyone else says and winds up confiding in him far more than he should. Caught up in all of this is Molineux, torn between doing his duty (which requires him to apprehended Robert) or following his heart and doing what's right.

The Shaughraun is one of those stories that could be played either as a farcical comedy or heavy-handed drama, with Moore expertly navigating a middle ground between the two extremes. There are some terribly funny lines that make no sense when you think about them ("I have been madly in love with him for over three hours now"); as well as some nail biting moments when one wonders if Robert will be saved from the hangman's noose or a pistol shot. Not to mention just how in heaven will the various characters get away from the bad guys? But all in all the story feels like a sort of "easy read" novel, peopled with folks not quite real yet distinct enough to care about. While the characters sometime act as if they're in on the joke, they never acknowledge this point to the audience. At least not too much.

The characters are a lot of fun. (Several of the actors reprising their roles from the Irish Rep's 1998 production of the show.) Fitzgerald has a wonderful scenery-chewing role as the title character, a man who can spin a tale with the best of them. A hard-living fellow, with a reputation of a rascally ladies man, he is currently romancing Moya Dolan (Emma O'Donnell), to the dismay of her uncle (Geddeth Smith), the local parish priest. Conn is also one of those larger-than-life personalities you can't help but root for; his heart always being in the right place, even though his actions may not be. He also has some hilarious dust-ups with his mother (Terry Donnelly) just about the only person who can keep him in line, until her back is turned, that is. 

Shanahan is fine as Molineux, a good-hearted if somewhat dimwitted officer. Yet there's no denying his valor and conviction as he tries more than once to help Claire without betraying his duty as a solider. Kevin O'Donnell works well as Robert, another pure-hearted soul, and who also has the misfortune to trust the wrong people, such as his belief in Kinchela's ultimate valor. There's an interesting interplay between both Robert and Molineux when they first come face to face, showing how there's more to each of them than initially meets the eye.

White, Fabel and Emma O'Donnell all nicely portray the women in Molineux, Robert and Conn's lives. Strong and earthy, yet still wonderfully feminine, these ladies have learned how to survive as members of a somewhat lower class, at least where the British are concerned, and are definitely folks you want by your side in a fight. Donnelly has some good comic relief moments as Conn's mother, and Smith convincingly portrays Father Dolan. The latter at first a seemingly stereotypical role, but Smith also gets a chance to show the depth of Dolan's principles and the turmoil he feels when these principles run counter to protecting a friend.

Gormley does wonderful work as Kinchela, making the character more than just a simple cardboard villain. This is a man who has tentacles spreading to every corner of the county with always one more trick up his sleeve to ensure he'll end up on top, or at least get away unscathed. Though not if Robert, Conn and their friends have anything to say about it.

Klara Zieglerova's set works beautifully in the Irish Rep's relatively small space, offering a nice air of authenticity to the proceedings. Costumes by Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios Wright are quite good, and the lighting by Brian Nason and sound design by Zachary Williamson are strong.

Also in the cast are Tim Ruddy (doing a very good job as a tormented informer), Rory Duffy, Laurence Lowry, Jake Zachry and Gwenfair Vaughn. Special mention must also go to Sadie who steals the show as Conn's loyal companion, Tatters

More like comfort food than a five star meal, The Shaughraun is a lot going for it. While you may not think too much about the play once you've left the theatre, there's a very good chance you'll be quite willingly swept up in this tale of love, loyalty and daring-do while watching the performance. Which is not a bad thing at all.

The Shaughraun
Written by Dion Boucicault
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Set Design: Klara Zieglerova
Co-Costume Design: Linda Fisher
Co-Costume design: Jessica Barrios Wright
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Sound Design: Zachary Williamson
Associate Set Designer: Sonoka Fukuma Gozelski
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Choreography: Brian McNabb
Casting Director: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Elis C. Arroyo
Associate Stage Manager: Arthur Atkinson
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates
Producer: Ciaran O'Reilly
Associate Producer: Alexis Doyle

Featuring Kevin O'Donnell (Robert Ffolliott), Patrick Fitzgerald* (Conn, The Shaughraun), Allison Jean White (Claire Ffolliott), Kate Fabel (Arte O'Neal), Terry Donnelly* (Mrs. O'Kelly), Mark Shanahan (Captain Harry Molineux), Sean Gormley (Corry Kinchela), Geddeth Smith* (Father Dolan), Tim Ruddy (Harvey Duff), Emma O'Donnell (Moya Dolan), Jake Zachry (Sergeant Jones, Mangan), Rory Duffy (Prison Officer, Sullivan), Laurence Lowry (Reilly), Gwenfair Vaughn (Bridget "Biddy" Madigan), Sadie (Tatters-a dog)

* - member of the original 1998 cast

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running time: Two Hours, one intermission
Closed: June 12, 2011

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