Mister Eclectic (howeird) wrote,
Mister Eclectic

Dancing at the Hovel

Just back from Half Moon Bay and Coastal Rep's Dancing at Lughnasa. Never heard of it, you say? Neither had I, despite it winning Tony awards and being made into a Meryl Streep film. Now that I've seen the play, I know why.

It's an awful script, and takes what could have been an inspiring, uplifting idea and throws it into a pool of quicksand. Or if you would rather, it takes an idea which could have been a heartbreaking, 3-hankie tear-jerker and sucks the life out of it.

I went because Jen Longo, who was brilliant in the last Coastal production I saw, had left a note that she was in this one too. And that Valerie Clear, whose lighting design was, pardon the pun, brilliant, in that show was also working on this one.

Before I go any further, let me say the cast was excellent, all of them. There were a few slow cue pick-ups, and one or two slightly muffed lines, but that's live theater. All but one character maintained mild Irish accents (had they used more authentic ones for the locale we would not have been able to decipher them). But I get ahead of myself.

The story is simple. Five unmarried women, sisters, live together in a small house in a small town somewhere in Ireland. Kate (Mimi Ahern) is the puritanical school marm who thinks she's the backbone of the family. Chris (Anna Cook) is the youngest, prettiest whose lover Gerry (Will Springhorn) had abandoned her and their son Michael (Rob Hedges) more than a year ago. When he returns she falls for him all over again. Rose (Christine Lida Sliva) has what we would call these days a learning disability, and Maggie (Renee Diascenti) does what she can to keep Rose out of trouble and distract her. Agnes (Jen Longo) does most of the work around the house, has the quickest wit, and apparently Gerry dumped her for Chris. Living with them is their uncle Jack (Kris Carey) who is back from 30 years as a missionary in Africa, recovering from malaria. Carey plays Jack with a British accent, which really should have been Irish. Springhorn plays Gerry with an Irish accent, though he's Welsh.

The title of the play comes from Agnes' plan to take all the sisters to a Celtic pagan festival for the god Lugh (the festival is called Lughnasa in the play but more accurately should be Lughnasadh). There's a short scene where the radio comes on playing a traditional Irish dance tune, and the sisters all go out into the yard and shake their booties in a folk version of Riverdance, but that's the last we hear about the festival except in passing, after Kate vetoes the whole thing as not proper for Good Christian Folk. Which, of course, it isn't.

There's a lot more dancing, but it's Gerry ballroom dancing with Cris and Agnes and Maggie. No, not simultaneously.

So what's not to like?

1. The show begins with a tableau of all the characters frozen onstage. I hate tableaus.
2. Michael opens the show with a long monologue telling us who all the characters are, in some detail. Blatant narrative exposition like this would have earned the script a failing grade in any playwriting 101 class.
3. The first act is a grueling 90 minutes long. About 1/3 of the audience did not return for Act II.
4. Michael the narrator is an adult, he's looking back from many many years after he was grown and out of the house; but the same actor plays Michael as a 6-year-old boy. Hedges did a very good job of this, but I would have been happier with one of HMB's many talented youth theater actors playing the non-narrative bits.
5. The set was divided down the center, the left half was indoors - the kitchen - the right half was the back yard. Very little action takes place in the yard, and while it is clear the director chose this layout to accommodate the one dance scene I mentioned, it would have worked better for me if the kitchen had taken up the whole width of the stage, with the back yard scenes taking place downstage. The kitchen was set upstage far enough for this to have worked. 
6. Way too many monologues, way too little dialogue.
7. After Michael delivers what should have been the final scene narration wrapping up all the loose ends, the play backs up and continues for another 10 minutes.
8. The lighting cues were distracting when going from a focus on the back yard to the kitchen and vise versa. From what I saw at the last production, I suspect this was the director's call, not the lighting designer's.

In general, the plot line is uneven, some of the characters are not fleshed out very well, and the writing is downright boring. There are a few good quips delivered by Maggie and Agnes, Kate has some gems of bitchiness, and Jack shocks Kate with his tales of African pagan rites, but that's about it.

Springhorn shows a great singing voice - I'll look for him in any musical they decide to do - but he doesn't get to use it much. There isn't a lot of singing in this show, which is a big WTF for a story about 5 Irish women. Carey is superb as a sick old man who becomes hale and hearty in the second act, but his character's symptoms were pneumonia and malnutrition, not malaria. Malaria makes the skin go yellow, with cold sweats and delirium as the main clues. Coughing into a hankie is not typical of malaria victims. I suspect we can blame the author for this inaccuracy, not the actor. 

Directing (by R. Dutch Fritz) was unimaginative, but adequate.

Set dressing was good for the kitchen, lacking for the backyard. One major mistake was the set dressing change between acts I and II. I saw the stage hand busily re-arranging things on the mantelpiece, but whatever those changes were they were too subtle for the audience to notice. When a man comes back from 30 years in Africa and is well enough to walk a mile or two four times a day, and the man has Gone Native as Uncle Jack had, there would have been African masks, shields, lances and maybe even a fertility statue or two on his walls. None of this appeared in this production.

Excellent audio. Clear, crisp sound, including what was piped into the lounge. A note to the board person - it might not be such a good idea to pipe the cast warm-ups into the lounge before the house opens. Better to feed the lovely Celtic dance music in separately.

The backdrop painting was too Monet where it should have been more realistic. It looked nothing like an Irish countryside. Good fireplace effect.

House staff is very impressive - friendly and efficient. One nice thing about CR is they always have a little display in the lounge area with text, photos, books and magazines appropriate to the show and its setting. Champagne and wine is sold pre-show, with cookies and soft drinks added at intermission.

After the show, only a few of the cast came out to greet the audience - those who had people they knew coming. Jen poked her head out for a moment, but dashed backstage before I had a chance to say hi. Makes one wonder...

As always, these are my opinions, YMMV. See the show for yourself and let me know if you agree or not.

Dancing at Lughnasa continues at Coastal Repertory Theatre in Half Moon Bay Sunday June 24 at 2 pm and next Friday-Saturday at 8 pm.
Tags: review

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