Russ Hunt's Reviews

Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel

Theatre St. Thomas
November 1998

A play like Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa poses a number of serious challenges for a theatre company, and some particularly daunting ones for a company composed primarily of young people. It's a play which requires an almost impossible level of ensemble coordination. The fact that there are almost always four or five characters on stage, and that all of them are engaged in the action in some way, means that individual actors must be tightly and actively focused not only on their own roles, but keenly aware of everybody else and of the arc of the show -- of where the audience's attention should be focused, and of everything else the audience might see if their eyes wandered . . . and of the shape and rhythm of each scene. Characters who are listening are often at least as important as -- sometimes more so than -- characters who are speaking or acting.

A second challenge is that it can seem that the play is pretty shapeless and static -- that nothing much really happens, that the real story is occurring somewhere off stage, before or after the conversations and actions we're actually looking at. Unless we come to care about some pretty subtle interactions, and about what these characters are feeling even when they don't tell us, we can become disengaged, as we might in watching a Chekhov play which comes just a hair short of working.

And finally, the issues that are central to this play -- questions about the power of tradition, the waste of lives caught in a society which can't provide them hope or fulfillment, the way in which the hopes of youth seem inevitably to crumble into a barren adulthood, are issues which are not likely to be central to the lives of the young actors, and substantial stretches have to be made to bring us all -- cast and audience alike -- to care about the five unmarried and isolated sisters, about the broken vocation of their priest brother and the glib self-deception of the narrator's absentee father.

The production, as it happens, though, is more than equal to these challenges. This isn't primarily because of the professional-quality production values -- the gorgeous, rich, and playable set (overseen by Patrick Clarke), the sensitively sophisticated lighting (supervised by Tim Gorman), or the wonderfully appropriate and rich costumes, props, and general design.

These aren't irrelevant, but the central power of this production comes from the tight, responsive and thoughtful ensemble playing of the cast. While some of the actors are particularly strong as individuals, that's far less important than the timing of the groups, the way people listened to, responded to, and engaged with each other.

The direction, in other words, seemed to me the star of this production. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the wonderful sequence where the radio suddenly comes alive, and the sisters -- beginning, of course, with the irrepressible Rose, and the devilishly alive Maggie, begin to dance. The way the sternly controlled Kate slowly and reluctantly gives way to her native inclinations, and finally throws her maternal parental responsibility to the winds and is swept up into the dance is a triumph of ensemble work.

It's difficult, given this collective power, to single out individuals. And yet it's true that I won't forget Maggie's (Juliette Bosse) devilish, sneaky, delighted and occasionally malevolent smile (sometimes only for herself). Or Kate (Tania Breen) clinging to her brittle, fragile dignity in the face of the collapsing fake gentility she's tried to impose on her ramshackle and disintegrating family. Even here, though, the things I most admired were they way they exchanged glances with others when someone else was talking, or the way they moved so as to show us where to move -- the way, for instance, they both watched the meeting between Chris and Gerry, or the way, when Maggie turns to watch, we all notice that she turns to watch, and we know we're supposed to notice it.

Nor will I forget the confused, desperate and lost Brother Jack (Aaron Knox), dancing in some kind of weird memory of a Ugandan village ritual while the aging Michael (Darrell Mesheau), the narrator whose memory all this is, describes in his resonant and even hypnotic voice a vision of Chris and Gerry, his mother and his errant father, dancing.

Also particularly memorable was Jef Bate Boerop as that wandering, philandering, and charming father -- a completely convincing fraud in the style of Monty Python's Terry Jones.

All of these, however, were only possible because the work of everyone in the company was so finely attuned, and in some sense it's wrong to pick anyone out of what was clearly a group effort.

After all this, however, it's too bad to have to say that there was one problem so serious that I think it kept many people from enjoying the play or experiencing the full power of this ensemble. It was that so often people failed to project their lines clearly enough, or spoke so rapidly the syllables -- and thus the meanings -- were lost. This was particularly a problem when -- as often happened -- the blocking required them to be facing away from the audience, or a large proportion of it. Audience members who didn't know the script already occasionally simply didn't know what was happening, and although it was easy to see that everyone on stage did, that remains pretty theoretical if you can't hear what they're saying.

The Box isn't all that forgiving a space, and there are spots which are much harder to project from than others -- and, of course, it's particularly difficult to project when you're intimately involved in a dialogue with someone else. We think of that kind of acting as particularly appropriate to film and television, where the mike and the camera can cuddle right up next to you and register the tilt of an eyebrow or the catching of a breath -- but on the stage the trick is to tell all of us in the audience that something really subtle has just happened, without making the something subtle into something coarse.

It's hard to do, but it's worth doing, and I wish that it had happened more often in this production, which had the potential to be a blockbuster. Even so, however, I'm grateful to have had a chance to see a play so challenging come to such life.

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