You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea: you cannot put an idea up against a barracks-square wall and riddle it with bullets: you cannot confine it in the strongest prison cell that your slaves could ever build. Sean O’Casey
First of all, there’s the language. O’Casey not only had the pulse of Ireland, but was one of its poets. Even an uneducated character speaks with natural flowering, while those who are cultured romance words. Irish Rep has assembled a dream cast, most of whom are regulars here. Producing Director Ciaran O’Reilly, who played Seumas in the theater’s 1999 production, does a masterful job from the inside out.
Background: The Irish Republican party, Sinn Fein (which translates as “Ourselves” or “We Ourselves”), rose up against British rule in The Irish War for Independence 1919-1921. Though some fighting was organized, much emerged from fervid men and women taking matters into their own hands. England’s army, the Black and Tans, was augmented by a temporary, untrained, and largely unmonitored auxiliary force, savage in its approach. After much bloodshed, a treaty was signed in 1921.
Harry Smith and Michael Mellamphy
This is by no means only an historical piece. Fiery rhetoric, outlaw violence, passionate political division, and the power of rumor = fake news are daily in current headlines.
Grungy street peddler Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy) inexplicably shares a tenement room with poet Donal Davoren (James Russell). How did this come about?! How does Donal earn any money? These two could be another play.
Seumas looks like a bum, quotes Shakespeare, does as little as possible in the way of work, and ignores landlord, Mr. Mulligan (a deliciously aggravated Harry Smith), when told he’s in arrears and will shortly be evicted. A Celt, the salesman perpetually disparages countrymen with whom he’s surrounded. Moody and preoccupied, Donal just wants to be left alone to write.
Ed Malone, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Una Clancy, James Russell, Meg Hennessy
Without anything to go on but his reclusive nature, it’s gotten around that the poet is an IRA gunman on the run. An actual IRA volunteer, Seumas’ sales partner, Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy), is not ‘unmasked’ till later – only Seumas knows.
Tenants and Neighbors: Alcoholic Adolphus Grigson (John Keating, a perfectly splendid drunk) is a self-proclaimed “Orangeman” (Protestant) whose displayed portrait of King William doesn’t protect him from abuse when the moment comes. Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly, credibly zealous about everything) is a loquacious busybody who doesn’t believe in closed doors.
Assuming his connection to the insurgents, Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy) shepherds Mr. Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd) to Donal with a written plea to the IRA for help against rowdy, threatening neighbors. The missive, superbly concocted by O’Casey, is equally filled with legalese and malaprops. Both actors are top notch; Lloyd’s delivery of convoluted language, perfection. Joint vehemence is palpable. Young Tommy Owens (Ed Malone, ingenuous fireworks) is firmly in the Republican camp, spouting hyperbole with little sense of consequences.
Meg Hennessy and James Russell
Also an ardent believer in the cause, pretty Minnie Powell who lives upstairs, is excited by thinking she actually knows an IRA gunman (Donal). The poet doesn’t bother with others’ presumptions, but when Minnie makes herself available to the hero she thinks he is, what harm can there be in maintaining the illusion? Meg Hennessy imbues her role with just the right guileless flirt and righteous passion. She sparkles.
Some authors burden the stage with characters not integral to the plot. O’Casey illuminates shades of perspective. His players are rich and symbiotic. Almost every one contributes to singular impression. (We might’ve done without Tommy.) Seemingly innocent omission and precipitous action propel this story to tragedy. We’re left with an unresolved question of conscience. War is wont to do that.
John Keating, Terry Donnelly, Michael Mellamphy
Michael Mellamphy imbues Seumas with a lumbering, crusty exterior. He’s viably self-serving and though learned, a bit obtuse. I can’t help but missing just a pinch of dark comedy here a la Samuel Beckett.
James Russell (Donal) gives us a sensitive poet, very much in his own world, yet with a backbone. Accustomed to solitude, he palpably perks up around Minnie without becoming utterly vulnerable.
Director Ciaran O’Reilly doesn’t make a false move. Every character seems his or herself. Breaking into song, poem, or pontificating speech are all made seamless. Minnie can’t help but keep touching Donal. The sleepless poet aptly curls up in a window seat looking like a Pierrot against moonlight. Adolphus’ inebriation never goes over the top. Doorway push/pull with Mr. Mulligan is thoroughly real as is the wincing cruelty of Auxiliary soldiers.
Costumes by Linda Fisher/David Toser are excellent. The extent of Seumas’ shabbiness and his wares, Donal’s fastidiously kept apparel, Mrs. Henderson and Mrs. Grigson’s poverty-bred clothing, economic levels of men’s suiting…
Charlie Corcoran, who acquired me as a diehard fan with his fantastic Irish Rep Set for The Emperor Jones, has done it again. The entire theater becomes O’Casey’s slum area. Fully covered building walls-replete with lit windows stand opposite, blown out-brick. High hanging laundry dangles above our heads. A hall stairwell optimizes this venue’s challenging pillar. The dwelling itself is meticulously low and specific.
Michael Gottlieb’s Lighting Design and Sound by Ryan Rumery/M.Florian Staab are integral and evocative, the latter especially when noise is generated offstage = outside the apartment.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: James Russell and Michael Mellamphy
The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey
Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly
Irish Repertory Theatre
Through May 25, 2019
132 West 22nd Street
Shadow of a Gunman is part of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy. Irish Repertory Theatre will mount all three plays this season for a cohesive look at the author’s dramatic take on his country from 1916 through 1923. Gunman’s main run ends on March 3. Juno and the Paycock is on March 9-28. At that point, Shadow & Juno play in rep through April 14. The Plough and the Stars then runs April 20-May 10. From May 11-25 all three plays will play in rep. A calendar with all performance dates can be found here. below.