THE SHAUGHRAUN, by Dion Boucicault. Directed by James P. McGlone. Staring Glenn Jones, Joseph McGlone, Sara Van Buskirk and Joanna Tavarez. At the Celtic Theatre Company, in residence at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. Through May 19.
Dion Boucicault was one of the most startling theatrical oddities of the 19th century. Born in Dublin in 1820, he’d become something of a stage celebrity in 1841 when his play “London Assurance” scored a great success at Covent Garden.
As a celebrated actor-manager, Boucicault took his troupe, whose leading lady was his wife, Agnes Robertson, to New York in 1853, where they spent most of the rest of their lives. This perhaps accounts for the fact that at least one standard theatrical reference work, “The Readers Encyclopedia of World Drama,” refers to the Irish-born theatrical mover and shaker as an “Irish-American playwright, actor, and manager.”
The admirable Celtic Theatre company, in residence at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., has happily opted to round out its 20th anniversary season with a sprightly and appealing production of “The Shaughraun,” which Boucicault, who lived until 1890, wrote in 1874 as a vehicle for himself.
Indeed, the playwright performed the role of Conn O’Kelly, the play’s roguish, drunken, good-hearted title character, until very nearly the end of his life, at which point, as he approached 70, he was clearly too old for the part, which was, in reality, a comedic variant of a standard romantic lead.
Boucicault’s Conn has been immortalized by a famous statue of the actor in the role, with his beloved dog, Tatters, seated at his side.
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Tatters in fact appears onstage in most productions of “The Shaughraun.” When the Irish Repertory Theatre did the play a few seasons back, the famous dog was “played” by Cola, an affable black Labrador retriever owned by Patrick Fitzgerald, the actor playing Conn.
In the Celtic Theatre Company’s production, Tatters’ participation is restricted to a few off-stage barks early in the show, and then a whimper or two later on.
“The Shaughraun,” perhaps best-described as a comedy-melodrama, ranks, along with “The Poor of New York,” “The Octoroon,” and “The Colleen Bawn,” plus the aforementioned “London Assurance,” among the four or five best-known and most frequently produced of the plays of Dion Boucicault, which is saying something, considering the fact that the hyperactive Dubliner is thought to have written or contributed to the writing of between 150 and 200 plays, many of them now lost or forgotten.
Considering that “The Shaughraun” is made up of 16 scenes set in 15 locations, and calls for a cast of 15 actors, the current Celtic Theatre Company production is clearly one of the group’s more ambitious adventures.
Under the directorial guidance of James P. McGlone, the CTC’s co-founder and artistic director, all those scenic variations are mainly represented by the merest suggestion, a chair here, a desk there, and a tree stump elsewhere, with items being hustled on and off by stagehands and company members working swiftly in half-light.
The large cast comprises actors familiar to regular CTC audiences. For example, Glen Jones, starring as Conn O’Kelly, the titular hero of Boucicault’s play, gave a good account of himself earlier this season as the blind householder in the group’s production of “The Iron Harp.”
“The Shaughraun” is set in approximately the same time period as Brian Friel’s “Translations,” with the Irish chafing under the strictures imposed by the occupying English, including an order forbidding the poaching of salmon, an activity at that Conn has long been a specialist.
Since Owen McEvoy’s scenery has been made minimal by the realities of the group’s theatre-in-the-round playing space, most of the dash and color of “The Shaughraun” is to be found in Fred Sorrentino’s excellent costumes, blending the scarlet uniforms of the occupying army’s officers with the subtler pinks and greens of the gowns worn by the wealthier women in the landed Irish community, and even with the autumnal earth tones of the ragged clothing worn by its less fortunate members, Conn O’Kelly and his mother included.
Among the most graceful performances in the CTC’s “Shaughraun” are Sara Van Buskirk’s elegant Claire Ffolliott, the Arte O’Neal provided by Joanna Tavarez, and, on the male side, Kenneth Robert Marlo’s Captain Molineux and the Robert Ffolliott of Joseph McGlone, the son of the play’s director.
Also making strong contributions as Boucicault’s villains, Cory Kinchela and Harvey Duff, are, respectively, Joseph Prussak and Clifton Field.
Equally impressive are Joanne Tagtaglino as Conn’s loyal mother, the widow O’Kelly, Jack Maher as the steadfast Father Dolan, and, particularly, Daniella Villella as Moya Dolan, a local girl irresistibly drawn to the Shaughraun.
“The Shaughraun,” a singular title which remains, for the most part, untranslated, has its origins in an ancient Irish word referring to a rogue or scoundrel, preferably of the charming, lovable variety since, after all, Conn O’Kelly is a role the astonishing Dion Boucicault wrote for himself to perform, and which he did, in fact, play well into his dotage, much to the joy of his vast audiences. — Joseph Hurley