`The Weir' is Irish storytelling

THEATER

Prize-winning play, set in a pub , is at the Vagabonds

March 11, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Although there's no shortage of pubs in Fells Point, a new one has cropped up. This latest is on the stage of the Vagabond Players. Patrons can't order a beer there, but they can watch the cast of Conor McPherson's play, The Weir, knock back more than a few.

The drama, which was produced on Broadway in 1999, revels in the art of Irish storytelling. Indeed, the thin plot is little more than an excuse for spinning tall tales. (The title means "dam," and this play opens up a floodgate of stories.)

The initial stories are told for the benefit of a newcomer to this rural Irish community - a young woman whose presence entices the men at the bar to wax loquacious.

The round of one-upmanship begins with Seamus Dockery's Jack, an aging bachelor who is as quick to anger as he is to put on the charm, qualities Dockery conveys with ease.

After regaling his cronies with an account of a house built on a road traversed by fairies, he eggs on Stephen Antonsen's Finbar, a well-to-do local property owner who sees himself as something of a swell.

Finbar's story - about seeing the spooky figure of a woman on a staircase - is a mite scarier than Jack's. And the next story, told by Scott Knox's Jim - about digging a grave - is scarier still.

But it's the tale told by the newcomer, Laura Malkus' Valerie, that's genuinely haunting. A story about Valerie's young daughter, it's wrenchingly related by Malkus, and the rawness of the emotion she expresses leaves the others shaken, including Mike Papa as the gentle barkeep.

Patrick Martyn's direction wisely focuses on the words instead of on extraneous action, although William Conrow's lighting - dimming ominously for each story - is a bit overdone.

The Weir won the 1999 Olivier Award for best new play, but it's far more talky than dramatic. A modest play, respectably staged at the Vagabonds, it's a little like a rural Irish version of Cheers - though hardly as cheerful.

Show times at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 28. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-563-9135.

`Othello': The comedy

An odd fact about Shakespeare's Othello: If you remove one crucial prop - the incriminating handkerchief - the entire plot collapses. Iago wouldn't expropriate the hanky; Othello wouldn't become homicidally furious at his wife, Desdemona, for misplacing this heirloom gift; and you know the rest.

In Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, playwright Paula Vogel uses this pivotal handkerchief as her opportunity to offer a loosely updated, radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare's tragedy, told from the viewpoint of its female characters.

In Vogel's version, Desdemona, far from being chaste, has begun spending Tuesdays working in a brothel. Her handmaiden, Iago's worldly wife, Emilia, is a pious prude. And Bianca, the courtesan, is a liberated woman (or at least that's how Desdemona sees her).

The one-act offbeat comedy is a good choice for Company 13, the troupe that bills itself as "Young. Brash. Unafraid." Director Jamie Sinz gets confident performances from his three-woman cast.

Megan Martinez plays Desdemona as a haughty, spoiled rich girl. Speaking with an Irish brogue, Kate Michelson gives an empathetic portrayal of sadly mistreated Emilia. And spewing Cockney slang that is at times deliberately unintelligible, Kerry Brady is a brazen Bianca.

Vogel's play overturns preconceptions about all three characters (not just Desdemona). Far from being a devoted wife, Emilia longs to leave Iago. And though Desdemona may view Bianca as a free spirit, Bianca's greatest longing is to settle down to a conventional married life in "a cottage by th' sea."

It seems to be all in fun, but in the end, when Desdemona prepares for bed, a deep sense of sorrow overtakes the humor that has come before. No matter what Desdemona's true nature may be, her murder remains an appalling, unjustifiable crime. That appears to be one of Vogel's major points, and as her tidbits of updating suggest, it's a point that our legal system still often needs to be reminded of when women are the victims of violence.

Company 13 performs at the Top Floor, 5440 Harford Road. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through March 20. Tickets are $8. For more information, call 443-691-7040.

Jerome Lawrence

Baltimore-born actor and poet Rigg Kennedy called recently to reminisce about the late Jerome Lawrence. Co-author (with Robert E. Lee) of a dozen Broadway plays, including Inherit the Wind, Auntie Mame and the musical Mame, Lawrence died on Feb. 29 at the age of 88.

Kennedy was Lawrence's next-door neighbor in Malibu, Calif., for a half dozen years in the 1960s, and though he said the playwright was never the same after fire destroyed his home in 1993, overall he described Lawrence as a man who lived a "successful, happy and curious life filled with good cheer." Kennedy said friends of Lawrence's who visited his Malibu home in the 1960s included Noel Coward, Christopher Isherwood, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, Angela Lansbury, Anais Nin and Elliott Coleman, former head of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

There is, of course, a local connection to Inherit the Wind as well. The play is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, and Lawrence and Lee based the character of reporter E.K. Hornbeck on The Evening Sun's H.L. Mencken.

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