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Theater Review: Friel puts some Irish in a Turgenev classic

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, Brian Friel’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s play. The Fourth Annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas. At Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Conn. Through July 3.

The summer’s salute to playwright Brian Friel on the occasion of his 70th birthday gets into full swing next week with the opening of two of the three Dublin productions imported as part of Lincoln Center’s Festival 99.

As a sort of introductory salute to the Donegal-born dramatist, however, London’s Royal Shakespeare Company has arrived at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre with a sparkling production of Friel’s free-wheeling adaptation of Ivan Turgenov’s 1850 classic, "A Month in the Country."

The playwright’s Irish hand is evident from the first scene, in which the heroine, Natalya Petrovna, and the assorted guests and functionaries around her country estate are listening to the sound of a piano being played in an adjacent room.

In Friel’s version, the music is the "B-Flat Nocturne," by John Field, a too-little-known Dublin-born composer who went to St. Petersburg in 1802 to sell pianos for Muzio Clementi and became known as a composer and performer, finally dying in Moscow in 1837, by which time he would logically enough have been a familiar name to the characters of "A Month in the Country."

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The company the RSC has brought to the 16-day Connecticut event, the fourth International Festival of Arts and Ideas, is made up of mostly Irish and English performers. The idiom, however, is decidedly Irish, to the point where a casual theatergoer might wonder, for a scene or two, at least, just what all these denizens of Dublin and Belfast are doing on a country estate in Russia in the middle of the 19th century.

Once it becomes clear that Friel’s point is that it isn’t really necessary to hear classic French and Russian plays in the standard stage English to which we’ve become accustomed over the years.

In dealing with "A Month in the Country," by a precursor of Anton Chekhov, a dramatist to whom Brian Friel is endlessly compared, the Irish writer has stressed the play’s essentially comic tone, with rich and rewarding results.

At the same time, he has put the emphasis on youth, and given us, instead of the usual theatrical diva, a Natalya Petrovna, in the person of actress Sara Stewart, a heroine who is blonde, beautiful, and, it appears, still in her very early 30s, young enough to fall impetuously in love with Aleksey Nikolayevich Belyayev, the 21-year-old tutor who has come to the estate to instruct her young son in the subtleties of English and French.

The lanky, puppylike Jack Tarlton plays Aleksey as though he’d been shot out of a cannon and, as a result, seems even younger than the age assigned him by the text, and fully capable of the skittish nature Turgenev and Friel have given him.

Belfast’s Lloyd Hutchinson, as the joke-telling, self-doubting rural doctor, Shpigelsky, is a production standout, as he tells Lizaveta Bogdanovna, in the play’s famous proposal scene, never better done than here, that he loves her so much that, should she become ill, he would "call another doctor."

Elaine Pyke’s Lizaveta matches Hutchinson point for point, making the scene gleam like the jewel it is. Sam Graham, as Rakitin, the estate’s permanent guest, and Darrell D’Silva, as Natalyla’s rich, working but slightly dimwitted husband, are the staunch underpinnings of this staging, directed by the RSC’s Michael Attenborough, while Colin Hurley and Catherine Walker are sterling as, respectively, the German tutor, Herr Schaaf, and Vera Aleksandrovna, Natalya’s teenaged ward.

The RSC production, which debuted at the company’s new Swan Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon, on Nov. 25, 1998, has the stripped-down look of a touring venture, with white fabric standing in for walls and making the setting resemble a ward in a provincial hospital ceilings, but, despite such shortcuts, the play comes through like the joy it inherently is.

Friel’s light touch, not always wholly evident in his own original plays, wins the day here, and serves as a reminder of the rich affinity the writer clearly feels for the 19th century Russians, a point which will be underscored on July 7, when the Gate Theatre Dublin brings his celebrated adaptation of Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," a hit at the most recent Dublin Theatre Festival, to Lincoln Center for a 13-performance run.

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