If the Irish Repertory Theatre were never to stage another production they should still be garlanded in olive leaves and paraded down Broadway for having the stamina and artistic daring to bring us what they are understatedly calling the "Yeats Project," a month-long festival of all 26 rarely performed plays written by Ireland’s greatest poet, William Butler Yeats.
"Project" is much too academic a word to describe their achievement with this series of plays, lectures and readings.
Between them, directors Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly have staged no less than eight full productions of Yeats plays on the same stage in the same month with the same actors.
As a New York Times review says: “Ms. Moore and Mr. O’Reilly have set themselves a mighty challenge in making these plays sing with a fresh, compelling voice. Presenting them in simple productions with minimal scenery, in an unadorned style that Yeats would have approved of, they do their best to make a case for the plays as living works.”
Featuring haunting original scores by "Riverdance" composer Bill Whelan, and boasting spellbinding choreography by Barry McNabb, each of the new productions are thrilling to look and have been brought vividly to life.
As the Rep’s productions make clear, Yeats was an Irish nationalist in his heart, even if his politics are often harder to discern. But like Oscar Wilde, another gifted Anglo-Irish writer, you can actually discern all the warring impulses at work in his art.
“Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?” wondered Yeats toward the end of his long life. He was contemplating the politically galvanizing response to of one of his most famous plays and it says a lot about Yeats world view that he was still in any doubt about it.
The fact is that his hard hitting play "Cathleen Ni Houlihan" is about as incendiary a piece of theatre as you’ll ever witness, and in the Irish Rep’s spirited new production Fiana Toibin is so captivating in the title role that she’ll have you reaching for your pitchforks before she’s taken her final bow.
Yeats consistently preferred myth to realism and so his association with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, which he had helped found, came to an end when his stable of writers started venturing ever closer to realistic productions. Even today there are many in Ireland and abroad who can’t abide his mighty tableaus. What, for example, is the point of singing of the peasantry if they don’t really feel like singing themselves?
But there’s no denying the beauty of Yeats language or the thematic richness of his themes and characterizations. In fact, his skills as a writer and dramatist are so self evident and multifaceted that at times the only response they generate is near speechless awe.
In "The Land of Heart’s Desire," brought vividly to life on the Rep’s stage, you can see Yeats contention, refined throughout his life, that folklore is the foundation of a living mythology. But you can also see why his work enraged his Irish critics, particularly fellow writers like Sean O’Casey, who were exasperated with all the fairies and the arcane symbolism. Taken on its own terms, it’s a marvelous tragedy, exploring what happens when a soul has to choose between the hearth and the heart.
In "Purgatory," Yeats troubled and troubling play that explores (among other things) the irresistible pull the dead have on the living, Yeats’ "Old Man" character betrays an anxiety about his origins that resonates and echoes in the work of many Anglo Irish writers of the period.
In the utterly electrifying "A Full Moon In March," Amanda Quaid (last seen opposite Daniel Radcliff in "Equis" on Broadway) gives a performance of immense power as the Irish Queen who calls for the head of the swineherd who has insulted her. Quaid’s work is accompanied by the music played and sung by William Ward, Amanda Sprecher and Justin Stoney, in a performance that is never less than magical.
In "The Pot Of Broth" Terry Donnelly matches the always excellent Patrick Fitzgerald head for head in this lively Irish folk tale that looks like it could have been written before Saint Patrick first made landfall in Ireland. Donnelly’s instincts as a performer are matchless and Fitzgerald is perfectly cast as her foil.
The Irish Rep has outdone themselves creating a theatrical event of this caliber. There’s not a weak link in the entire fabric. Do not miss this remarkable month long festival of poetry and magic.
Performances on the main stage are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are scheduled for Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday’s at 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by calling 212-727-2737.