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Feelin' Irie

By brad senning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 22, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

photo by Susan Degan (From left) Rosanne Couston, Gary Tarrentts, Monica Kester, Christian Armstrong, Kristina Rigers and Dean Hepker stand in front of the window pane in The Words Upon the Windowpane, one of many Irish plays now being presented by Live Theatre Workshop.

Until the end of the 19th century, Ireland had no national theater. There had been performances in Ireland and even Irish playwrights, but no characteristic Irish national drama.

So in 1899 W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory pitched in to establish the Irish Literary Theatre. There, plays were performed that built on Irish and Celtic folkloric tradition.

The playhouse closed for lack of interest in 1901, but Yeats and Lady Gregory tried again with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. On its opening night, December 27, 1904, it performed Lady Gregory's Spreading the News.

Spreading the News is playing again at the Live Theatre Workshop on Speedway Boulevard. It's one of three one-act plays in performance during this year's annual Festival of Irish Plays, celebrating a rather new tradition of Irish drama.

Lady Gregory's Spreading the News is a peasant drama. The action takes place at a fair where the new town magistrate (Bruce Bieszki) stirs up suspicions among the townfolk. Two friends, Jack Smith (James Wilson) and Bartley Fallon (Cliff Madison) find themselves the subjects of malicious rumors about murder and adultery. The magistrate pins Bartley Fallon to a crime that turns out untrue but may get him killed anyway.

The acting competes with "Family Matters's" Urkel for being so overdone and the lines are spoken as if for the grand prize of "America's Funniest Home Videos" instead of to convey important plot details. But Lady Gregory's script invites a certain whimsy upon which the LTW production simply elaborates. If you like Urkel, this production is for you.

Yeats' spiritual play, The Words Upon the Window-pane was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1930. He wrote it while staying in Lady Gregory's house, and it is dedicated to her. It followed a long investigation Yeats made into the lives of Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels) and Swift's wife Stella. The play is about a seance wherein the spirits of Swift and Stella communicate to each other through Mrs. Henderson (Monica Kester), a "trance medium."

The Words Upon the Window-pane is a didactic drama that conforms to Yeats's principle of drama with primarily educational objectives. And the Live Theatre Workshop's production does little to break it from its educational mold. A man sitting in the front row said out loud during the production, "This is getting boring." Monica Kester makes Mrs. Henderson's trances look more like sleeping sickness. Since she has the bulk of the lines and carries the weight of the story, it makes for a dull play experience.

Hugh Leonard's The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft is about a wife who attempts to leave her husband and Ireland for an uncertain future in London. The setting is an airport V.I.P. lounge, where the husband Kevin Collins (Art Almquist) finds and corners his fleeing wife Josie (JoDee Ann Kaser). After a long and deceitful attempt to win her back, Josie reluctantly agrees. But preacher-in-training Edmund (Mark Hampton) enters the lounge to talk to Josie while Kevin is retrieving her luggage and inadvertently inspires her to seek a better life.

It's a wonderful play with stellar performances by the three principal actors. Credit the director, Amy Lehmann-Almquist, for deciding to run this play. It is funny, inspiring and irreverent. The Festival is worth seeing just for this production.

Although Irish drama is new on the scene, it has some good work to its credit. And Live Theatre Workshop's investigation of the national movement piques the interest even as it leaves audiences unsatisfied.