By Joseph Hurley
THE SHAUGHRAUN, by Dion Boucicault. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Starring Patrick Fitzgerald, Daniel Gerroll, Paul McGrane and Terry Donnelly. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St. Through Jan. 3.
There are occasions in the theater when you can tell you’re going to have a good time before an actor speaks or even appears, and even before the stage lights are brought up to full.
Audiences entering the Irish Repertory Theatre’s warmly welcoming auditorium on West 22nd Street are met with a brightly painted diorama of the Irish countryside, complete with a sky full of clouds hanging over gentle mountains below which a graceful network of fields and roads spills out across the stage floor.
A perfect miniature version of a thatched cottage stands at the end of one road, which a beautiful scale model of a three-masted galleon, suitable for transporting convicts to exile in Australia, hangs magically in midair stage left.
The possibilities seem endless, and the vehicle on the Rep’s varied menu is Dion Boucicault’s "The Shaughraun," a popular classic battlewagon of the 19th century theater.
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From the first glimpse of Klara Zieglerova’s magical toybox of a set, it seems clear that little could possibly go seriously wrong on the group’s rather limited playing space, and, in director Charlotte Moore’s daffily inspired handling of the play, very little does go awry, except for a moment or two when Boucicault’s melodramatic plotting threatens to get in the way of the fun.
Dublin-born Boucicault lived from 1820 until 1890 and wrote, adapted, contributed to, or otherwise tinkered with something in excess of 200 plays, very few of which, probably fortunately, have survived.
Of those still available, including 1859’s "The Octoroon" and 1860’s "The Colleen Bawn," recently revived by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the best-known is "The Shaughraun," which the playwright created in 1875.
The play’s title, which translates as "The Vagabond," refers to the central character, a Kilroy-like figure named Conn O’Kelly, a muddle-headed Robin Hood who wanders the countryside accompanied by his dog, Tatters, doing good works, frequently by accident, and generally improving the quality of like in the area.
Carefree young Conn, probably about 20, is a role Boucicault, 55 and bald when he wrote the play, played to enormous effect at long as he could stumble around a stage. The role suited him so well, despite everything, that a famous sculpture was made of the actor-playwright in the role, complete with his loyal canine companion.
In the splendid new production, the gracefully goony Patrick Fitzgerald brings enormous brio and heart to the role, making Conn a vaguely addled rogue who’ll never use a door if a window has been left open. Best of all, the actor comes equipped with his own dog, Cola, a Labrador mix of endless affability and reasonable powers of concentration who may be the definitive Tatters.
"The Shaughraun," with its 14-actor cast, boasts no fewer than three leading men, including the red-coated British Captain Molineux, richly played by the resourceful Daniel Gerroll, who invests the part with an utterly irresistible blend of wry self-mockery and genuine stoutheartedness. (The British-born Gerroll isn’t the first performer to recognize Molineux as a ripe role, despite it’s not being the title character. When the Abbey revived the play a couple of decades ago, the great Donal McCann, who could have played any character he chose, opted for the British officer over the rural rogue, Conn, and scored a triumph with it.)
The play’s third hero, the wronged Fenian prisoner Robert Ffolliott, is portrayed with endearing innocence by Rep regular Paul McGrane, who doubles briefly as a kind of compere, introducing the evening and promising the audiences "no Boucicault pretensions," thereby setting the perfect tone for what director Moore and her deranged collection of players have in mind.
Among the female members of the cast, Terry Donnelly, as Conn’s mother, is possibly the most tender hearted matriarch since Ma Barker. As the trio of rural belles attached, respectively, to Robert, Conn and the Captain, Marian Tomas Griffin, FionaWalsh and Lucinda Faraldo are glowingly lovely in Linda Fisher’s aptly colorful costumes, and thoroughly delightful in bringing their characters to vigorous, suitably stubborn life. If one negative comment were to be demanded, it would be that Griffin gets no opportunity to use her glorious singing voice this time, alas.
The occasion’s sole singer, if what she does could actually be termed singing, is the Biddy Madigan of Amy Redmond. Suffice it to say that any man in his right mind would be pleased and excited at the mere thought of her keening at his wake.
The villainous Corry Kinchela, charged with laying out the more tedious strands of Boucicault’s obligatory plot-spinning, is handled deftly by Peter Rogan, while the Rep’s producing director, Ciaran O’Reilly, makes a nifty little meal of the dastardly Kinchela’s sooty sidekick, Harvey Duff, precisely the sort of broadly etched character "type" the canny playwright knew his audiences delighted in encountering, again and again in play after play, with only minimal alterations separating the roles.
Moore does an astounding job of keeping her play on the move, with her large cast scampering around the set like monkeys taking possession of a motorized jungle gym powered, in this instance, by a turntable that seems not all that much bigger than a jumbo-sized Lazy Susan, suitable, perhaps, for the dining hall of the sort of rural madhouse presented here.
The production, for all its ebullience and joyousness, seems acutely aware that Boucicault, passionate about his Irishness, was intent on creating something more ambitious than generic Celtic minstrel shows.
That the prolific playwright intended to depict the strengths in the Irish character, even as he was exploiting certain "weaknesses" to richly comic effect, is particularly evident in his female portraits, a collection of feisty, strong-spined women entirely unafraid of speaking their minds.
"The Shaughraun," at its excellent best, is very far from a polemic, especially in a production as lively and jubilant as this one is.
Along the road leading to this wondrously successful vest-pocket spectacle, the Irish Repertory Theatre has managed to illustrate at least some of the qualities that made Dion Boucicault a vastly popular figure in the theater of his day.
In addition, whether by accident or by design, the group has come with a free-wheeling, raucously enjoyable enchantment that’s going to be difficult to beat when the holidays draw near and audiences are searching for enjoyable family entertainment. It would be hard to find a heart hard enough not to warm to the charms of "The Shaughraun" as dished up as the opening attraction of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 10th year.