Review| The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge

Boulder, Colorado’s Upstart Crow Theatre Company reenacted an Irish classic. A tale of deadly immorality in the land of Erin, one that is notoriously known for both being an Irish literary landmark—and a riot starter, literally.

The play runs through until April 8 in Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center and tickets can be found here.

John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World tells the story of Flaherty’s tavern and the questionable characters passing by. It begins as any simple tale does: an Irishman walks into a bar…and the devil follows.

JMSynge
J.M. Synge was a pioneer in Irish and English literature.

Synopsis

It’s the turn of the century, the 20th century that is, when Irish was synonymous with negro and when young Christy Mahon (played by Alexander Markovich) bumbled into Michael James Flaherty’s (played by John W. Roberts) tavern.  There, Christy confesses to patricide and claims that he had murdered his father with a loy, a farming shovel, by striking his skull.

Bewildered by this strange man’s ‘courage’, Flaherty’s daughter, Pegeen Mike (played by Amy Sonnanstine) grows a strong liking to Christy. Even if she was betrothed to Shawn Keogh (played by Joseph Illingworth). Christy, having been the village idiot in his parish, is dumbfounded by the popularity begotten to him in this new town, in County Mayo, where other women like Widow Quin (played by Alexis Bell) flock around him.

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Playboy of the Western World debuted in 1907, making the play more than a century old.

Christy’s father, Old Mahon (played by Tom Mann), revealed to have survived his son’s killing blow, arrives at the tavern in search for his son. Old Mahon recognizes young, naughty Christy after the playboy returns from a donkey race, which he wins riding the slowest one. The Mahons quarrel, violently, as any good Irishmen, to which the truth is exposed for everyone to see. Old Mahon is struck, once again, and believed to be dead, once again.

The town folk turn their back on Christy, as the truth declared him a betrayer first, and bound him up for a lynching. Because what else says “you’ve hurt my feelings” than the urge to hang a person via mob mentality. Old Mahon, the immortal mule of a man, returns to the scene and confronts his pestilent child, once again. They reconcile and leave together.

To the woe of the village’s women and, particularly, Pegeen, the betrayal leaves her heart broken as she’d lost the only “playboy of the Western world.”

 

 

Local Theatre, a Forgotten Delicacy

The Upstart Crow, in the tradition of the ancient thespian arts, delivered a gratifying rendition of a classic Irish tale.

Markovich’s portrayal of Christy stole the show. Christy, a vile and pathetic idiot, incited no sympathy, nor pity, enabling the spirit of the character to be greatly enjoyed. The elongated Irish phonetics, often in the form of bellowing moans, captured the mindset of foolish Christy beautifully as Markovich also expressed a range of emotion in his facial expressions—a most necessary feat to ensnare the audience, and he did.

Amy Sonnanstine, whom I had the pleasure of watching play the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Miss Metcalf in Howard Richardson & William Berney’s Dark of the Moon, played Pegeen as the young Irish lass reads in the play: playfully spirited and wittingly innocent. Sonnanstine’s acting, as was in King Lear, is the vivacious backbone on which any play desperately needs and to see her play a less humorous role than the Fool did not disappoint.

Illingworth’s Shawn Keogh was maddeningly pleasant to witness as the character, riddled with cowardice, is inversely attractive. Shawn is sober and a seemingly good candidate for a husband to Pegeen yet he lacks what Christy does: savagery. Building on the trope that grit equates to manliness and that is much desired by women, Illingworth’s portrayal is a comedic delight as his character is anything but manly or desirable.

Alexis Bell, Tom Mann and John W. Roberts were the columns of the play, the pillars on which the more lively characters couldn’t do without. Bell’s Widow Quin, a widow by choice that is, as in she poisoned her husband, maneuvered effortlessly between serious and funny. A trait I had witnessed in Bell’s acting before. As Old Mahon, Mann’s portrayal was a delightful experience with a deep giant’s voice that played perfectly with the character, enabling the audience to be both wary and welcoming of the skull-bleeding father.

This is my first time seeing John W. Roberts in action. His role as Pegeen’s father, Michael James Flaherty, excelled in physical acting; Roberts’ ease and comfort on stage are enviable traits, even to a theatre enthusiast who only acts in private. Nothing to be ashamed of if every now and then you reenact an Al Pacino role in the shower…

As for the roles of the other county folk in Synge’s masterpiece, Paul Campbell’s Jimmy Farrell and Jeremy Barnes’ Philly Cully were a sight to miss. As in the less time they had on stage with their witty commentary, the more they were missed. The comedic, and even the plot progressing importance of these characters was as subtle as a flying brick. A treat to those who appreciate elusive humor.

The young ladies who admired Christy will surely grow to be a great addition to the worldwide order of acting. Haley Beeson, Izabella Larson, Lillia Estrada and Jade Tulk were engaging in both their ability to amuse and persuade the audiences into their fandom for Christy.

The Good, the Bad & the Irish 

When reading between the lines, the play is essentially this: Ireland’s society in the early 1900s was one of hypocrisy. Synge laid out the Irish standard as revolving around a two-faced approach to faith, a drunken understanding of morality and a misguided sense of responsibility.

A standard that, thanks to humankind’s linear nature, demands that all fall under the category of weasel-like existence. A standard that remains prevalent today.

When the play was first shown in 1907, riots ensued thanks to Ireland’s hardline conservative parties at the time. The play, given its connotations about female immodesty and downright repugnant values portrayed in the extremely fallible characters, enticed audiences into a frenzy. Riots continued with several future renditions and even when played in the U.S. a few years after, actors were arrested in Philadelphia because of the content.

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Fake news?

In today’s world, Synge’s work remains in its resonance to our social structures. When watching the play I couldn’t but think to myself, what if an author of our time penned similarly harsh criticisms to our status quo? On sexual ethics, on race related traits? Especially if the one doing the criticizing, like Synge being Irish himself, was by default of their circumstances, a person belonging to the criticized?

Some food for thought. Otherwise, the play is a must-see and if you can’t, read it!

 

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