At a time when the theater is besieged by phony avant-gardists from the left and vapid epigones from the right, let us give thanks for Brian Friel. This Irish author of stories, plays, and play adaptations blends solidly traditional elements with canny forays into experimentation. His oeuvre comprises masterpieces such as Faith Healer and Translations, heartening hits such as Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Dancing at Lughnasa, and Molly Sweeney, and occasional honorable failures such as Wonderful Tennessee. He does not repeat himself, and each play, however unobtrusively, grapples with modes of artistic innovation.
Festival 99 offers three Friel works, presumably not selecting them but taking what Ireland’s famed Abbey and Gate Theatres had on tap. The first item was the Gate’s Uncle Vanya (1998). As Friel remarked in the introduction to A Month in the Country, Turgenev and Chekhov were innovators thanks to whom “the undramatic became the new drama.” Ben Barnes’s production took this too literally; it was slow-moving and forgetful of Chekhov’s insistence on stressing the comic.
But Friel’s English rendering is wonderfully fluid and racy, David Gaucher’s set was simple yet evocative, Jacqueline Kobler’s costuming artfully self-effacing, and Rupert Murray’s lighting deceptively mellow. Absent such supreme Frielians as Catherine Byrne and Stephen Rea, there still were such old hands as Niall Buggy (though too puny and pathological as Vanya), John Kavanagh (a fine Astrov, whose balding pate could have used a romanticizing wig), and T. P. McKenna (a decent but too sympathetic Serebryakov).
Susannah Harker, though looking thoroughly Russian, overdid Elena’s languor, and Donna Dent made Sonya more goony than pathetic. Eamon Morrissey’s drolly beefed-up Telegin remained defiantly Irish. Still, Chekhov’s mastery was slightly dimmed, yet ultimately undiminished.