By Bob Shuman
Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is a hard and beautiful play, and Neil Pepe’s staging, at Irish Rep, is lovely, as one of its characters, Joxer (a Faginlike wingman, played by John Keating) might say. The production is a soft interpretation, though, right for an American moment, where long-term unemployment is accompanied by cell phones, flat screen TVs, and food stamps—not the devastation the playwright (O’Casey lived from 1880 to 1964) ruins his characters with. U.S. theatre has been trying not to “offend” the audience, at least since the early ‘80s, and such a philosophy even shows in Off-Broadway theatre, which can sometimes seem like summer camp creations by rich kids, always from the same shallow, progressive point of view. The nation is awakening–or maybe just acquiescing–to the power of trust fund beneficiaries, as evidenced by recent reports on the Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman college admissions scandals, which pinpoint what shams elite universities are (coverage of this has been made by Daniel Golden and Ann Coulter): catering to generations of the same wealthy families, and sweeping the guilt under the rug by admitting minority students who also don’t need to obtain performance records as high as others in the general population. What does a middle-class Irish-American student need to provide to Harvard and what deals can he or she cut? Is the application counted the same as what a celebrity child would submit—or what Jared Kushner shows on his record?
The clashing colors and pristine, hanging laundry of Charlie Corcoran’s tenement setting for the tragi-comedy are reminders of gauche social class, but they don’t go far enough to artistically render the economic collapse of the Irish at the beginning of the twentieth century and beyond. Maybe producers and designers, who would never allow urine fumes to waft through the audience, as did a recent French production of Ionesco Suite at BAM, believe it’s too disturbing to present much beyond the bad taste of an underclass that didn’t get to attend the Ivy league; but the creators are manipulating history mendaciously. A 1989 Juno and the Paycock, from the Gate Theatre, in Ireland, took a much harsher tack. Frank Rich described the set in the following and the audience could see why the characters would borrow to claw their way out: “The tenement in O’Casey’s play belongs to the Boyle family of Dublin, during the Civil War days of 1922. The home’s crumbling walls are caked with slime, as if sewage had been flushed through the living room. The windowpanes, cracked and sooty, are framed by the cobweb remains of lace curtains, while the meager furniture has long since spilled its guts.” Artists reposition history in ways which can sometimes be more powerful than fake news, but culture already gives creators such a wide berth that misinformation is rarely challenged, even if it is incomplete, incorrect, or blatantly propagandistic.
Neil Pepe dilutes Juno and the Paycock (the drama is being performed as part of its important Sean O’Casey Season, which runs until May 25) by seeing the work as a middle-class play, as opposed to a working-class one, or directly, as one about abject poverty. As ‘Captain’ Jack, the “paycock,” the loafer, the idler on the dole, Ciaran O’Reilly, with hand in his vest pocket, leaning back on his heels, appears too stolid in the role; he’s not a bluffer or con or strutter, from which he gets his nickname. His blarney is off, and he probably would have been served well by closer observation of AA meetings or regarding hustlers on the street. Instead, he demotes his character to the kind of dim, ineffectual father on a sitcom. The Paycock is probably more akin to Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion, though–O’Casey and Shaw became friends—who is horrified at having been roped into joining the bourgeoisie. Juno (Maryann Plunkett) is a meaningless role in the context of today’s society—if she was ever anything other than an ideal. The women’s movement has made it clear that women are not saints or martyrs—she and her daughter (Sarah Street) can not even be said to be representative personas, accounting grief, for Ireland anymore, amid divorce and pro-choice legalization.
These are strong characters (and characterizations) to be booed out loud, in the public square. Fine work also comes from the Boyle’s severely injured son (Ed Malone)–Juno and the Paycock is a war play, written by a top-tier playwright, both facts often overshadowed. The suitors of Mrs. Boyle’s daughter create clear, tiny portraits of cowardice (James Russell and Harry Smith) and Terry Donnelly works to give a glimpse of art as it emerges from the school of hard knocks. Perhaps one of the finest roles, in the play is that of a woman who loses her son to the revolutionary movement. Hers carries an aching monologue, here performed, unsentimentalized, out of earth and sorrow, by Una Clancy. Even in a production that normalizes despair, O’Casey’s keening shrouds the eyes in mist.
© by Bob Shuman. All rights Reserved.
Production photos: Carol Rosegg
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