The fall theater season begins with a play that caused riots when it premiered in 1907.
The Playboy of the Western World is bringing laughter to the Hoogland Center for the Arts Sept. 15-18 for four performances. It is obvious a show is good when a run-thru rehearsal eight days before opening is performance-ready. This show sets a high bar for local theater.
The raucous comedy by Irish writer J. M. Synge (1871-1909) plays in the intimate Club Room, produced by White Horse Players.
James Daniels, director of the play, says he and his wife, Aasne Vigesaa, created the new White Horse Players to focus on classic, neglected, non-musical productions.
Playboy of the Western World is set in a bar in rural Ireland. I wonder if audiences felt Synge was making fun of these people and is partly the reason for the riots in 1907? Who knows? Synge's writing brings more realism to the stage than usual for those times, though it is still full of a broad hilarity. He concocts a story that seems modern today. A young man, Christie Mahon (played by Alex Pryor), shows up in town and tells a story about how he has committed a murder. He also becomes the center of attention for the women in the town.
"Another theory about the riots, is that there was a scene in which ladies' undergaments was mentioned, belittling womanhood," says James Daniels, "but I think it had more to do with the fact that one of the female characters raised her dress to the audience."
Daniels also points out that it was a different kind of play for the time. Audiences wanted to be told whom to root for, but here that person keeps changing. That's also part of the brilliance of the play.
"The playwright refuses to say who is good and who is bad," exclaims Daniels.
Playwright Synge died two years after the premiere of the play, but The Playboy of the Western World has been produced all over the world ever since. It was just produced in Chicago this summer. Daniels understudied the lead role as a young actor at Steppenwolf Theatre there in 1998. And there was a musical version on Broadway in 1975 that no one remembers today.
"It is such a well-constructed play," says Daniels. "There is no flab in it. It has great characters and great humor. It has action-packed scenes and many surprises. And, of course it has great roles for actors."
The story has the feel of folk tale. "But it doesn't have a moral," says Daniels. "The people of the town symbolize amoral characters in an amoral world." Synge is a poet as well as a master of the plot twist.
The 90-minute comedy is performed by an ensemble fully committed to jumping off the cliff with all the physical demands of the show – and it's very physical, full of chases and fights and pratfalls, and it all seems to be motivated by sex. Just watch Aasne Vigessa as a neighborhood widow trying to bring Christie home with her. She has a lot of competition from the young girls in the neighborhood, as well as from Pegeen, a local barmaid who takes Christie in to protect him from the law. They both show their strength as they fight over the young man.
The production is filled with actors giving performances that stay with you. There is not room to highlight every actor, though Kevin Hart is priceless as Pegeen's bumbling suitor. And Rick Dunham gives a bravura performance as Christie's father. Eric Flick, Doug McDonald and Kevin Klein are so imbedded in their characters, you'd think they were from Ireland. The neighborhood girls are hilarious, played by Jill Herter, Gretchen Wessell and Lucy and Rose Unal.
And Alex Pryor and Samantha Fletcher have created the lead characters as their very own, full of passion and desire. Watching them, it is hard to think that the play was written so long ago. They are a perfect match. Fletcher is a revelation to watch and to listen to, with her crisp, spitfire delivery. And though Christie is a fascinating, comical antihero, Synge gives the character some of the most lyrical words you'll ever hear. Pryor delivers beautifully.
How can a play be so hilarious and absolutely sublime with poetry at the same time? Maybe this is partly why it is still making audiences happy to discover it over 100 years later.
The Playboy of the Western World
Arrive early to hear live Irish music
30 minutes before showtime.
Four performances, Sept. 15-18: Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets at HCFTA.org or call 217-523-2787.
Phil Funkenbusch can be reached at [email protected].