Like the juiciest of farts, the relieving and incredibly human production of The Playboy of the Western World arouses in the depths of your belly that sort of visceral, ancient laughter perhaps only possible and appropriate in Irish villages. It’s evident to all, not just to theater experts, that the scent here is of brilliance, of skill, of excellent execution.
Reeking of Irish tragicomedic bouquet, John Millington’s Synge’s Playboy, now celebrating its 99th anniversary and directed by Tim Vasen, comes to the Berlind Theatre to shock, soothe, and unhouse.
The dilemma we find in tragicomedy, as with flatulence, is that even though we shouldn’t be laughing, we must. Because the playboy – a bona fide traveler named Christy Mahon (Taylor Crosby ’09) – claims he has killed his father, he finds solace in a shabeen, a sort of Irish tavern licensed to sell alcohol. Though timid, cold, famished, and sinful, he’s celebrated by the crowd in the shabeen, treated with respect and protectiveness even by the rowdy and entertaining duo of Philly Cullen (Michael McMillan) and Jimmy Farrell (Keith Cochrane ’08).
The indefatigable Pegeen Mike (Bridget Reilly Durkin ’07) runs the shabeen with her father (Nick Pepersack ’07), and when left with the playboy after the party has dispersed out into the dead of night, she shows her affection by jealously asking about the girls he’s met during his eleven-day trip.
But knocking loudly and, once gaining admittance, bursting into the shabeen, Widow Quin (Irene Lucio ’08) is the sort of character we dream about watching: dynamic, hilarious, seductive. Lucio brings four dimensions to this nosey widow in bitchy head-inclinations and silky movements of coquetry across the stage. She desires to bring the playboy back to her place in the middle of the night and literally gets in a tug-of-war with Pegeen Mike over the young man.
When Widow Quin has lost the argument and is forced to go home, when all goes quiet, and the playboy’s straw bed is made up, he declares, “It’s great luck and company I’ve won me in the end of time – two fine women fighting for the likes of me – till I’m thinking this night wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by.”
The mood here becomes uncomfortable, because we laugh. We laugh outright at a murderer celebrating his own transgressions and his capacity to capitalize on his sins as a libertine. We laugh because of the reversal and perversion of what is correct in this play, we laugh at the destruction of morals in the playboy’s youthful folly, and we laugh most at our own discomfort with this deviancy.
A trio of village girls – Sara Tansey (Kelechi Ezie ’08), Susan Brady (Becca Foresman ’10), and Honor Blake (Heather May ’10) – comes rushing in early the next morning to bring gifts for the new gigolo of Ireland, but it seems the playboy’s interests lie elsewhere. Shedding here his character’s initial timidity and acquiring bravado, Crosby finds his deepest stride in excitedly recounting and exaggerating the murder of his father to impress the women of the town. Though the seductive widow seems to have something in common with the playboy, for she inadvertently murdered her husband when a blow she dealt him became infected, Pegeen Mike’s rejection of her betrothed brings her a different sort of bond with the playboy, whose own forced marital plans gave him the urge to kill his father.
The scenery is stunning in this barn-like shabeen with an intricate array of potcheen bottles, ceramic jugs, a hearth, hay strewn about, and a Dutch door (with hinges perfectly rusted) to the back of the stage that serves as the portal for the array of surprises in the plot. The fireplace pokers, brooms, and windows allow the actors ample playthings to provide them with distraction activities when not speaking in the scene, and as a result, we find a greater sense of verisimilitude, as if we are observing real people, not actors, inhabiting a shabeen in County Mayo at the beginning of the twentieth century. Durkin makes best use of the house in her histrionic cup smashing, negotiating broom and door with flare.
Irish flavor comes to fruition in the rather authentic Irish accent the actors execute to perfection, even affecting the Irish cadence and lilt as they rise high at the end of their questions or wax sentimental deep in their throat with uvula swaying as they say, “I’m tinking.” The Irish step dance to break up acts and the live fiddler, Amy Zakar, add even more Irish flair to this quintessentially Irish play.
The playboy’s engagement with Pegeen Mike disintegrates after a surprise appearance and soul-filled performance from Rob Grant ’08, and ultimately glory seems merely ephemeral for our playboy. A young man who finds bounty in his transgressions is a strange and delicately humorous juxtaposition of the morbid and the comedic; here he is, lowly traveler humorously puffed up to the heights of status in the Western World. But despite the comedy, the end of the play should be interpreted as poignant and replete with great pathos.
After Pegeen Mike takes charge of the playboy’s banishment, she feels intense regret, and it disturbed me to find that at my performance, many in ascots and tails laughed when she says, “Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.” Perhaps, though, this chuckling best exemplifies the thin veneer separating the tragic and the comic here.
Playboy comes as another great addition to Irish Theater at Princeton, something quite en vogue at the moment with Intime’s production of W.B. Yeats’s plays in Cuchulain Comforted or McCarter’s staging of Brian Friel’s Translations in October.
With Paul Muldoon’s appointment as Director of the University Center for the Creative & Performing Arts and the new Leonard L. Milberg Irish Theater Collection, everything seems to have a hint of that Irish green. So it seemed only appropriate to stage Playboy as the third Irish play in two months time.
So bring it on, you scud-bellied scallywags! Come, all you peach-pink pantaloons! Let us have some Irish drama and a draught of Guinness. Let us dance a jig and sing merrily. See this spectacle. Take in its odors.
So go on now. Take a whiff.