Monday, May 2, 2011

Off Broadway: The Shaughraun

The Shaughraun, one of more than 150 plays written by Dion Boucicault over a century ago, is now being revived in a cheerful production at The Irish Repertory Theatre. Boucicault was a master of melodrama and The Shaughraun, like many of his other works, is a swashbuckling romantic tale of honor, bravery, love and betrayal. To be sure the plot is formulaic and the characters stereotypical. But notwithstanding those shortcomings, the play still provides an afternoon or evening’s entertainment for the entire family, due both to the fact that swashbuckling, romantic comedy-dramas of this sort are just plain fun and to the exceptional talents of several of the cast members in this production.

Here’s the recipe for the play. Take three lovely Irish colleens, each enamoured of a different man: (1) Arte O’Neal (Katie Fabel), who is in love with Robert Ffolliott (Kevin O’Donnell), an Irish patriot, sentenced as a Fenian; (2) Moya Dolan (Emma O’Donnell), who is in love with Conn, The Shaughraun, a fiddling’, poaching vagabond but a loyal friend to Robert who he has recently helped escape from the Australian penal colony to which he had been remanded; and (3) Claire Ffolliott (Allison Jean White), Robert’s sister, who is in love with Captain Harry Molineux (Mark Shanahan), the British officer in charge of a military unit sent to recapture Robert. Combine boisterously and plump them all down in County Sligo in 1867.

Now add in: a villainous Squireen, Corry Kinchela (Sean Gormley) who has betrayed his trust to care for Arte and Claire in Robert’s absence; a traitorous scoundrel, Harvey Duff (Tim Ruddy) who bore false witness against Robert which led to Robert’s conviction in the first place; Conn’s doting mother, Mrs. O’Kelly (Terry Donnelly); and an honorable parish priest, Father Dolan (Geddeth Smith) who is also Moya’s uncle and who disapproves of her relationship with Conn. Season with assorted soldiers, policemen, henchmen, mourners and a dog. Add a keener’s wail and an Irish step dance to taste. Toss thoroughly, sit back, and watch what happens.

What happens, of course, is just what you’d expect and I don’t think it will spoil the play a bit for you if I tell you that, in the end, Robert is freed, the bad guys all get their come-uppances, and the young lovers are all appropriately matched up. All well and good and lots of fun although I was mildly disappointed. I had expected an interesting conflict to develop as Claire fell in love with the man seeking to capture her brother and as he fell in love with her, and then I thought that the play’s success would depend upon its resolution of that conflict. But that’s not what happened. After setting up the potential for such a conflict, Boucicault seemed to have just swept it under the rug: no conflict developed, no resolution was required and the play turned out to be little more than a light hearted romp.

By contrast, that was not the case with Arrah-na-Pogue, another of the three Boucicault plays that are known collectively as the “three Irish plays” (the other two being this play, The Shaughraun, and The Colleen Bawn). I’ve never seen The Colleen Bawn but earlier this year I did see a splendid production of Arrah-na-Pogue at The Storm Theatre (see my review of March 11, 2011) and I thought that Arrah-na-Pogue was intrinsically a much better play than is The Shaughraun. Arrah-na-Pogue was just as romantic, just as melodramatic, and just as adventurous as The Shaughraun but it had the added advantage of being a much more intricately structured work and I found it considerably more satisfying.

None of that, of course, is the fault of the cast of this production of The Shaughraun, all of whom perform delightfully. Patrick Fitzgerald, who played the title role (which had been played to great effect by the playwright himself in the original production more than a century ago), was absolutely terrific. So, too, was Allison Jean White who, in the role of Claire Ffolliott, succeeded in expressing a whole range of emotions not only in words but through the sinuous, balletic movements of her body.

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