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Whether it’s a distortion of memory or not; whether you believe, along with Brian Friel, that “atmosphere is more real than incident,” when I think of the Broadway production of Dancing at Lughnasa in the early nineties, I think of the five sisters spontaneously breaking into dance, in their famous scene together, led by a woman who had slapped flour on her cheeks like war paint. I recall the reason for that scene as being a way to break the monotony of boring lives (and I don’t think you would say I was wrong).  Today, however, watching the standout performer Jo Kinsella, in the current version at the Irish Repertory Theatre, I felt, with her head tilting back, dragging the flour through her hair, that we were descending into . . . the Celtic soul.  In 1992, however, I really didn’t know that much about such a soul or even a writer like Chinua Achebe–in fact, the African ways of life, discussed by Father Jack (the sisters’ brother), who has come back to County Donegal from Uganda after more than twenty years, registered rather off-puttingly with me (pretty much as it does with the true leader of the women, the schoolteacher, Kate).   The connections between African and Celtic paganism, this vast subterranean river of worldwide belief, weren't related to the playwriting construction issues I was studying at the time, or the work’s Chekhovianism.  Besides, all that really needed to be understood about Dancing at Lughnasa was that it was a hit, and we all wanted to see it.

Musically, Afro-Celtic music was emerging:  A bald Sinead O’Connor singing “Mandinka” comes to mind (1987) as well as Enya’s “Storms in Africa” (1989)—O’Connor also worked with Afro Celt Sound System/Afrocelts (their first album was released in1996). Although American paganism had been growing since the early sixties, too, Judy Harrow, in Devoted to You, points to Halloween 1979 as the moment when it burst into bloom—this was the day when two essential books were published: Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler and The Spiral Dance by Starhawk.  In 1998, Collins, in Ireland, published Alexei Kondratiev’s The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual, the preeminent title on Celtic spiritual traditions, which was released here in 2003 by Citadel Press (Kondratiev was actually an American who spent a good part of his childhood in France and Ireland and studied anthropology and linguistics at Columbia University and Celtic Studies at the Ecole des Hautes-Etudes in Paris; he died in 2010).  Kondratiev’s study notes that Lughnasa (the feast, which many might also know as Lammas, usually marking August 1, is named for the Celtic sun god Lugh–thought to be akin to Apollo, Hermes, or Odin, among others in different ancient pantheons) is typically associated with wheat (which, as part of the first harvest, is why it stands on the stage in productions of this play).  The holiday is also identified with racing horses and water; although he does mention a spring well, Friel describes driving cattle through fire in the back hills near Ballybeg during Lughnasa, which would be an event probably most associated with Bealtaine or May Day. Not that it matters in a memory play where we’re all using our memories.  As Friel has said in an interview with D.E.S. Maxwell, “Perhaps the important thing is not the accurate memory but the successful invention.  And at this stage of my life I no longer know what is invention and what is ‘authentic.’ The two have merged into one truth for me. . . . Ballybeg is a village of the mind, more a depository for remembered or invented experience than a geographical location.”    

It’s certainly less tragic than the fates of the runaway sisters, Agnes and Rose, in Dancing at Lughnasa—and I find this play easier to take than his deeply uncompromising Faith Healer.  Lest I be considered too nostalgic, however, let me do what Brian Friel might:  In 2004, the bottom fell out of the pagan book market, either from oversaturation (Harry Potter had been good for the product until he wasn’t), the rise of the Conservative right, or, in 2003, as one agent explained to me, the cancellation of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  The cycle had ended, sales had fallen, writers who had made careers in the area were out of contracts, and Publishing itself would soon be realizing the shocking potential of the e-book revolution (interestingly, this book genre, usually placed in New Age, may be coming full circle with an upcoming title by Alex Mars, which, set today, seems to be returning to a concept similar to Adler’s in her seminal work). Lilith Dorsey’s Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism, reluctantly published in 2005, though, was, for its time, a parting gesture towards inclusiveness before the cataclysm.  Would even a play the likes of Friel’s be much appreciated in the aftermath, given its pagan heart, much less our rising consciousnesses about continued bloodshed in Uganda?  Recall that the kites made by young Michael (a surrogate for Friel himself?) appear to be in some way reminding us of primitive art. Realize, too, that there is a need to express oneself irrationally in this play–to free oneself from the repression of modern society or controlling church (which is not usually in the characters’ best interests).

Nevertheless, for them, we understand that, even in small ways, Friel’s villagers must be free.  For them, as well, Charlotte Moore has assembled a notable cast:  Ciaran O’Reilly plays the two roles of Michael, the narrator–boy and man–clearly understanding what it’s like to be “tortured” by his aunts as a child and forgiving  enough to honor them when he’s older.  Annabel Hagg gives a lovely, unself-pitying performance as Chris, his young mother. Agnes (Rachel Pickup) and Rose (Aedin Moloney) demonstrate their opposing and dependent natures—a protective unpretentious recluse, who should have a boyfriend, and the talker, who takes one without strings.  Michael Countryman, as Father Jack, convinces us that he really did discover a better way of living in Uganda and Kevin Collins, as Gerry, is a  smooth deceiver. Jo Kinsella is the rare actress whose technique is invisible (and she probably doesn’t need one anyway–she's a natural) and Orlagh Cassidy's Kate is so uptight, you can see why there had to be a pagan renaissance.

Dancing with Lughnasa may be the most beautiful play ever written whose author doesn’t even think it’s about the words. Finally, twenty years later, I think I’d agree.          

© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Pictured, l-r: Orlagh Cassidy (Kate) and Jo Kinsella (Maggie) in the 20th anniversary production of Brian Friel's DANCING AT LUGHNASA at Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd St), directed by Charlotte Moore. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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The 20th Anniversary Production
Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel
directed by Charlotte Moore
choreography by Barry McNabb

October 20 – December 11, 2011

TICKETS NOW ON SALE! 

DANCING AT LUGHNASA opened on Broadway in October, 1991 and won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play.

This extraordinary play, widely regarded as Friel’s masterpiece, is the study of five unmarried sisters, named for Friel’s mother and sisters, (“those five brave, Glenties women”) who live in a modest cottage in Donegal. On the threshold of the autumn of 1936, the household revolves around the eight year old love-child, Michael, and the Mundy brother priest, Uncle Jack, recently returned from 25 years in a leper colony in Uganda. Ancient tribal customs and Christian beliefs clash as the autumnal fires celebrating the Harvest God, Lugh, bathe the high grass in golden light and distant music on the radio floats across the fields.

The sisters, with unfailing courage and sweet forgiveness dance in a wild, final celebration of their way of life before it changes forever.


Performance Schedule:  Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday at 3pm

Cast:

 

Kate

Orlagh Cassidy

Gerry

Kevin Collins

Jack

Michael Countryman

Chris

Annabel Hägg

Maggie

Jo Kinsella

Rose

Aedín Moloney

Michael

Ciarán O'Reilly

Agnes

Rachel Pickup


Artistic Team:

 

Directed by

Charlotte Moore

Choreograpy by

Barry McNabb

Set Design

Antje Ellermann

Co-Costume Design

Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios

Lighting Design

Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb

Sound Design

M. Florian Staab

Music

Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson

Props

Deirdre Brennan

Dialect Coach

Stephen Gabis

Production Stage Manager

Pamela Brusoski

Assistant Stage Manager

Rebecca C. Monroe

Producer

Ciarán O'Reilly

What the Critics Have to Say…

“It is A TIMELESS WORK OF GENIUS… and the Irish Repertory Theatre has given it A REVIVAL THAT IS WORTHY IN EVERY CONCEIVABLE WAY. Ms. Moore's cast, well led by Orlagh Cassidy and featuring an especially striking performance by Aedín Moloney, is so evenly matched that you might almost think the actors were blood relatives. "Dancing at Lughnasa" is AS PIERCINGLY, PERMANENTLY ENTHRALLING AS EVER. If you saw "Molly Sweeney" at the Irish Rep earlier this year, you won't need to be told to go see what Ms. Moore, the company's artistic director, has done with "Dancing at Lughnasa." If not, or if you're unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with Mr. Friel's work, then make haste to pay a visit to Ballybeg. It won't be your last.” — Wall Street Journal

FIVE ACCOMPLISHED ACTRESSES BRING VIBRANT LIFE TO THE UNMARRIAGEABLE MUNDY SISTERS… To audiences who know the play only from the flat 1998 movie with Meryl Streep or not at all, its theatrical spell will be revealed. When a blast of Celtic music comes over the radio in the play’s most indelible scene, possessing the Mundy sisters one by one as they stomp and yelp and whirl in individual states of rapturous release, IT'S IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO BE TRANSPORTED ALONG WITH THEM.” — New York Times

  “So you think you can captivate?  “Dancing at Lughnasa” — Brian Friel’s bittersweet Tony-winning play of common lives told with uncommon grace — does exactly just that in  A RICHLY SATISFYING REVIVAL at the Irish Repertory Company. Director Charlotte Moore has assembled a first-rate cast and guides her actors to sensitive and distinctive performances. That includes a wordless and cathartic dance choreographed by Barry McNabb. THIS WONDERFUL PRODUCTION OF THIS BEAUTIFUL PLAY FLIES HIGH.” — NY Daily News

“The off-Broadway Irish Repertory Theatre's SUPERB PRODUCTION of Friel's lyrical, bittersweet drama "Dancing at Lughnasa" is NOT TO BE MISSED. The haunting, autobiographical memory play, winner of three Tony Awards for its Broadway run in 1991-92, CASTS ITS MAGICAL SPELL YET AGAIN, under the artistic vision and sure touch of director Charlotte Moore, enacted by a fine cast.” — Associated Press

“What's needed to bring such a script to life is a cast that brings out the vivid emotional lives underneath the words, and, fortunately, director Charlotte Moore has that in abundance. For those who can see it, this lovely memory play is SOMETHING WORTH REMEMBERING.” — TheaterMania

“Sensitively acted and gracefully directed by Charlotte Moore (with elegant choreography by Barry McNabb)…“Lughnasa,” by turns joyous and tragic, is UNLIKE ANYTHING ELSE IN NEW YORK AT THE MOMENT.” — Bloomberg

“…A SMALL JEWEL OF A REVIVAL. A fine ensemble in a fine play.” — New York Magazine

“In lesser hands this intimate, largely plotless portrait could easily drag but Charlotte Moore's LOVELY PRODUCTION FEATURING SOME BEAUTIFULLY NUANCED PERFORMANCES and ample doses of humor allow the work to soar to poetic heights… in this fine collaborative effort, each one leaves an indelible mark on our own memories.” — Roma Torre, NY1

“What better place to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Brian Friel's 1991 Tony award winning Dancing at Lughnasa than The Irish Rep Theater, one of New York's greatest small treasures where all things Irish have thrived for almost a quarter century? Helmed by artistic director Charlotte Moore, it's A LOVELY PRODUCTION of Friel's music infused memory play. this NOT TO BE MISSED REVIVAL is the Irish Rep's third producton of a Brian Friel play.” — CurtainUp

“Friel’s elegiac memory play… beautifully captures the tensions between desire and duty, past and present, and family and individuality. The actors are appealing, the staging simple, the music and dancing restrained but charming. Thankfully, in a play where many pivotal events happen offstage, THE CAST NAVIGATES THE TALKY TEXT WITH GRACE and their lilting brogues may make for some nice word-music.” — Time Out

“In Charlotte Moore’s fine production, Ciaran O’Reilly’s Michael is a particular triumph, with this always reliable actor absolutely at the top of his form, playing his character, as a child and as an adult, with a grace which eliminates any problems the role itself may present. As Gerry Evans, who fathered Michael, Kevin Collins is a standout, as is Orlagh Cassidy as the grim teacher, Kate, the sisters’ primary backbone. The sisters are outstanding, including Jo Kinsella’s free-spirited Maggie, Annabel Hagg’s lovely Chris, Rachel Pickup’s sober, restrained Agnes, and Aedin Moloney’s vaguely damaged Rose. Moore has done wonders with a reasonably difficult play. The choreography provided by Barry McNabb makes a solid contribution, since the text calls for a fair amount of dance. “Dancing at Lughnasa” is, beyond a doubt, ONE OF THE IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE'S BEST RECENT PRODUCTIONS.” — Irish Echo

“It's a beautiful play, given a beautiful production. And IT WILL LINGER IN YOUR MIND AND CREATE A MEMORY OF ITS OWN.” — New York Irish Arts

A WARM AND LOVELY MOUNTING by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Rep. The play emphasizes the simple everyday events that separate home and family from the threats of the outside world, and Moore and her ensemble do a very fine job of displaying both the supportive sisterhood and hints of the perpetual sadness underneath.” — Broadway World

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