To call Translations an Irish play steeped in language is to tempt redundancy: What Irish play isn’t? Long after shifting tastes shunted verbal flourish offstage in New York and London, the Irish, in their glorious stubbornness, have gone right on being lyrical. Like Synge and O’Casey before him, Brian Friel delights in what language can do, refusing to treat words as mules; unlike them, he wrote a play about it, making his substance his subject.
“Yes, it is a rich language, lieutenant,” says Hugh, the teacher in whose grubby village school most of the action of Translations takes place. (To get a sense of the mise-en-scène at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore, imagine a bizarro Hibernian History Boys: The teacher’s always drunk, the students are barely literate, and the place looks like a barn, because it is.) In 1833, some English soldiers have come to map the area, standardizing—Anglicizing—its lovely Irish names, and young Lieutenant Yolland has gone native, falling particularly hard for the language he hears but can’t understand. Between swigs of his poteen, Hugh explains that Gaelic is “full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception—a syntax opulent with tomorrows.”
That assessment, aside from being beautiful, proves a fair description of the residents of this 1980 play. Hugh (Niall Buggy) and his browbeaten son Manus (David Costabile) dream of classier teaching gigs. Manus loves the fetching Maire (Susan Lynch), but she fancies the English lieutenant (Chandler Williams), which means troubles are brewing. Friel shows a fine, ironic touch in depicting how these dreams come to naught, especially those of Owen (Alan Cox), Hugh’s younger-son-made-good. He’s happy to translate for the soldiers, even though it means shedding his name for one more palatable to outsiders. It also strands him in the middle when the English, being English, start rampaging around Ireland.
Yet for all the passions in the script, the emotional side of this production rings oddly hollow. At one point the lieutenant and Maire woo each other solely by exchanging the names of Irish towns, the only words they both understand. What should have been the humanizing heart of the play is more admirable than moving. Some fault lies with a production that doesn’t capture Friel’s contrast between high-flown speech and prosaic reality. Hugh says the beauty of the Irish language is “our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to … inevitabilities.” But Garry Hynes’s staging strains for the picturesque. What’s described as a humble school looms onstage with towering stone walls, like some medieval abattoir. Instead of rustic tedium, we get haunted Irish timbers leaning in a haunted Irish corner, and poetic light casting poetic shadows over the poetic dirt floor. I’m delighted that this sounds like an Irish play; I wish it didn’t look like one.
Every January, I think this is the year I’ll crack what downtown maestro Richard Foreman is trying to say in his latest fiercely abstract extravaganza, and every year I fail. (And then I decide I’ve enjoyed myself too much to care.) This year’s show, Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!, is a dreamscape with a dash of polemic. A biplane piloted by a dozen of Foreman’s trademark plastic dolls swoops over the stage as unidentifiable characters skitter about in what looks like a prison made of words. Strings of nonsense letters line the walls, and when the actors open books (or what I took to be books, anyway), they find blindfolds. While everyone bemoans our national ignorance, Foreman seems to say the problem is too much knowledge. In fact, we invite the barrage of facts that blinds us. “Ah, this will make you feel better,” says a recorded voice-over as someone’s head gets wrapped in newsprint.
For the second year, a pair of video screens hang above the frantic stage of the Ontological-Hysteric. A giant X sometimes flashes across images of people clustered in friezes, which is clearly an act of incipient media criticism. (Unless it isn’t.) I’m eager to see where he’ll take his video exploration in coming years, but so far I prefer Foreman in three dimensions to two. The onstage action better captures my favorite quality in his plays, the sense that each one is a mental safari, the latest excursion through the strange, illuminating, inexhaustible landscape in his mind.
By Brian Friel. Biltmore Theatre.
Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!
By Richard Foreman. Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Marks Church.