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Greek tragedy unfolds in Ireland’s Midlands

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

PORTIA COUGHLAN, by Marina Carr. Directed by Aaron Beall. Starring Mercedes McAndrew, Paul Obedrinski, Marina McCreery, Caraid O’Brien, Con Horgan and Fergus Loughnane. At Todo Con Nada Show World, 671 Eighth Ave., at 42nd Street, NYC. Thursday through Sunday through April 7.

Thirty-eight-year-old Marina Carr was born in the river-scored Irish Midlands and has achieved a solid, albeit odd, reputation with a series of hard-mouthed domestic dramas, set mainly in the area of her origins, but incorporating elements of Greek tragedy set against the equally harsh events of her imagining.

In her most recent play, “By the Bog of Cats,” a mother slays her child at the precise moment when the baby’s sire is marrying another woman. Echoes of “Medea” resound through the work.

In Carr’s best-known drama, “Portia Coughlan,” the heroine, obsessed with the drowning, 15 years earlier, of her beloved twin brother, succumbs to the waters of the Belmont river, which runs near the unhappy home she shares with her wealthy husband and the children in whom she appears to have little, if any, real interest. The shadow of “Elektra,” while hardly dominant, does waft through the play’s three bitter installments.

Despite her commendable productivity, not to slight her somewhat exalted status in Ireland’s theater, Carr is still relatively unknown in America, although “By the Bog of Cats” was produced in California, and an earlier play, “The Mai,” was given an admirable staging at Princeton’s McCarter Theater a couple of seasons ago.

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Carr’s New York exposure, has, until now, been restricted to two underpublicized workshops of “Portia Coughlan,” which has now returned for a month-long stand at what is perhaps the most bizarre venue imaginable, the former Show World, a garish onetime porn palace at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, a portion of which is currently in the process of being converted into a nest of theaters and galleries.

The subtle “Portia Coughlan” seems out of place amid the glitzy reds, blacks and silvers of the space into which it has been wedged. Even under better circumstances, playwright Carr’s heroine might not seem to be the most appealing of pivotal characters. Slatternly, alcoholic and a terrible mother, the former Portia Scully appears to have married Raph’l Coughlan for his money, although she says, perhaps jocosely, that she chose him because, like her drowned, cherished brother, Gabriel, he was named for a celebrated angel.

The play picks Portia up on the morning of her 30th birthday, already somewhat drunk and ready to ignore and even abuse her passive-seeming husband. In the course of the day, she will encounter the scrappy members of her dysfunctional family: Marianne, her mother, Sly, her father, her sluttish aunt, Maggie May Doorley, and the aunt’s weak-willed husband, Senchil, of whom she says, not without a certain insight, “He wasn’t born, he was knitted.”

If they weren’t enough, there’s Portia’s foul-mouthed, wheelchair-bound old harridan of a grandmother, Blaize.

In addition, on an only slightly more positive note, there are her spurned but still potent lover, Damus Halion, a one-eyed friend, Stacia Doyle, known locally, perhaps with an unacknowledged nod in the direction of James Joyce, as “the Cyclops of Coolinarney,” an aggressive local barman, Fintan Goolan, and, finally, to round out her day, the silent ghost of her brother, still haunting her after 15 years, shows up from time to time, mainly to stare, briefly and expressionlessly, at his doomed sibling.

Carr’s sour-tempered play requires, in addition to Portia’s living room, the local pub and the Belmont river itself, complete with a path of stones.

Except for a sketchy attempt at a parlor, with a few chairs that Portia and her colleagues puzzlingly keep knocking over and then setting up again, designer Christine Finley hasn’t been able to manage very well, which is no surprise, considering the circumstances.

The actors fare somewhat better, however. As Carr’s titular heroine, Mercedes McAndrew is credible and even sympathetic. Paul Obedrinski is appropriately void as her husband, while Dorothy Stasney and Kevin Hagen are believable as her parents, as is Ruth Kulerman as her profane wreck of a grandmother, plus Marina McCreery and Joseph Small as that odd visiting aunt and uncle. Ben Stovall is suitably haunted-seeming in his few momentary, spotlit evanescences as Gabriel, a visitor from beyond the grave.

The production also utilizes a welcome trio of gifted Irish-born actors. Caraid O’Brien as the Cyclops describes her array of eye patches as a sort of fashion statement. The familiar Con Horgan, sporting newly cropped hair and a 10-gallon hat, makes something silken and sinister out of the underwritten role of Fintan, the barman. Best of all is Fergus Loughnane, who delivers an astonishingly effective portrait of Damus, the virile local lover whom Portia has rejected, but who nevertheless can still exert a powerful sexual magnetism over her when he feels so inclined.

— Joseph Hurley

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