Thursday, February 1, 2007

Your voice is sad whene'er you speak

Imagine an Irish funeral where the post-Communion meditation is a slow, sad rendition of the "Londonderry Air" (that is, "Danny Boy"). But the instrumentalist -- fiddle? bagpipes? uilleann pipes? Probably some kind of pipes -- is playing at such a funereal tempo, and taking so long to get from one note to another, that you have no sense of the overall melody. The tune loses its shape and emotional heft and becomes just one dreary note after another. By the time it's over, your mind has already wandered outside the church; you're probably thinking about whether there will be an open bar at the luncheon afterward.

If you can imagine that, you've more or less captured the experience of watching Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Brian Friel's Translations, as directed by Garry Hines. This is a wonderful play, a meditation on language, culture and history set in a rural Irish town a decade before the potato famine of 1845. Of course, the characters don't know that, which is where the dramatic irony comes from. Most are too busy looking to the ancients to worry overmuch about the future. In Hynes's hands, however, everyone seems to have some dark premonition of impending doom, even when the script suggests otherwise. Even when delivering Friel's florid speeches (dotted with the usual Irish tics: "Sure" this and "addressing-people-by-their-full-name" that), the characters don't chatter heedlessly, as the Irish are wont to do; they lament and moan like Russian gentry in a Chekhovian tragedy. Hynes's take on Translations is all funeral and no wake.

Perhaps the lack of pacing is partly due to the fact that Friel's three acts have been reshaped into two, presumably to meet the expectations of MTC's easily distressed subscribers. Act One (as presented here) feels far too draggy, and the final scene in the play is desperately in need of a metronome. From the beginning of the play, every line the characters speak is declaimed, emphasized, underlined, so that we will be sure to absorb its deep significance. But surely that is not what Friel intends. When everything is important, there can be no climax, and indeed the actual dramatic climax of the play is very little differentiated from what comes before and after. By that point, all of the characters are at a fever pitch of hysteria, ready to burst into tears at the end of each line. I kept expecting someone to mention Moscow.

The hardworking cast is upstaged by Francis O'Connor's set, beautiful but rather too lofty to suggest the humility of Baile Beag, or the constrained lives of its inhabitants. Most of the action takes place in a barn, and O'Connor's design includes large doors stage right through which light, birdsong, and (for the final scene) a distractingly large quantity of fog drift into the playing area. At particularly low-tempo moments I found myself gazing at those doors, wondering what was going on in the Irish countryside, and praying that some new character would enter from outdoors to shake things up. And the dramatic climax of the final scene is, in this production, a weather event.

The shapelessness of this production is particularly weird because the play has been written with such keen dramatic sense. The moment in the first scene when Maire enters, and you realize you've been eavesdropping all along on a conversation in a language you (probably) don't speak, or the love scene between Maire and Yolland, who are intelligible to the audience but not to each other -- two perfect examples of what theatre can do better than any other art form. But Hynes's heavyhanded direction and total lack of tempo drain nearly all the life out of this very rich play. She and MTC do get points for assembling a cast without the obligatory TV personality, and, like Hynes, much of the cast is apparently Irish. So presumably the actors are pronouncing all the proper names correctly, and that's one reason to see it live (however you're saying "Maire" in your head, you're probably not saying it right). But overall you might have a more satisfying experience of Translations on the page, as so much has been lost in its translation to the stage.

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