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Theater Review: Welcome revival of a 19th century gem

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE SHAUGHRAUN, by Dion Boucicault. Directed by Peter Dobbins. Starring Conn Horgan and Kate Brennan. The Storm Theatre, in association with The Looking Glass Theatre, 422 West 57th St., NYC. Through May 10.

The theater for which the Dublin-born actor and playwright Dion Boucicault wrote “The Shaughraun” in 1874 was a wild, tempestuous world of economically perilous touring companies, ego-driven actor-managers and unruly but enthusiastic audiences.

Boucicault had been famous since 1841, when, at age 21, he had enormous success with his play “London Assurance,” a resounding hit at London’s Covent Garden. He had lived in France, and, with his second wife, the actress Agnes Robertson, spent most of the 1850s in America, where he experienced such popularity that some volumes of theatrical history refer to him, mistakenly, as an Irish-American playwright.

If he tasted fame in the United States, he also felt firsthand the brunt of anti-Irish prejudice rampant, and clearly reflected in the mockingly degraded, caricaturish manner in which the Irish were depicted on stage.

When he wrote “The Shaughraun,” Boucicault, at age 54, was endeavoring to create a role he felt he could still get away with, but he also wanted to put an Irishman on stage who was, as described in one classic text, “an irresponsible, drink-loving, but good hearted wanderer,” but distinctly a hero as well, a fun-loving force for good.

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“The Shaughraun,” produced by the Storm Theatre and running at the Looking Glass Theatre, could be said to resemble the moustache-twirling melodramas revived every summer in theaters in onetime mining towns in the Old West, but if approached with skill and sincerity, as it has been in the new production, it comes through as a subtler play than most of those old war wagons.

The plays “The Shaughraun” most resembles, in fact, are Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and, most especially, Brian Friel’s magnificent, difficult “Translations.”

In “The Shaughraun” as in “Translations,” a British military officer posted to Ireland falls in love with the country in general and with one spirited village girl in particular. In both plays, the conflicts between the Irish and the English are spelled out with wit and originality, with specific reference to the uses both peoples make of the language they more or less share.

“The Shaughraun” stands of falls, probably, on the nature of the actor cast in the role, which is probably what Boucicault intended. In the production cleanly and efficiently directed by Peter Dobbins, who did a solid staging of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” a couple of seasons ago, Conn O’Kelly, the eponymous Shaughraun, is played by the appealing Conn Horgan, slightly shambling and somewhat pie-faced. The Cork-born actor brings a winning combination of innocence and cunning to Boucicault’s hero, wandering the hills and dales of County Sligo as the playwright imagined it to be in the 1870s.

Kate Brennan is pure and steadfast as Moya, the niece of the village curate and the girl the Shaughraun loves. Among the strongest members of Dobbins’s 16-actor cast is George Heslin as the stalwart Fenian fugitive, Robert Ffolliott, beloved of Arte O’Neal, done well by the flame-haired Dee Ann Newkirk.

Since the plays of Boucicault’s time resembled vaudeville shows, in that the audiences virtually demanded musical interludes, any revival of one of them would profit from the participation of performers who can sing and/or play musical instruments.

In that respect, this particular “Shaughraun” is fortunate in having Colleen Crawford, a spunky actress with a strong singing voice, the spirited Claire Ffolliott, sister of Robert, and the outspoken, opinionated girl who attracts the attention of Captain Molineux, the young English officer in charge of a small military detachment of Ballyragget. As played by Laurence Drozd, this particular Briton, opens to the charms of Ireland and her people, is a good bit sillier and fussier than would appear to be absolutely necessary.

John Regis, an able Christy Mahon in Dobbins’s “Playboy,” sadly turns the duplicitous Corry Kinchela into a cliche of melodramatic villainy, which Emmett McConnell’s Father Dolan and Carol Grant’s Mrs. O’Kelly are stereotypes to the point that they might have been stamped out of raw dough with a cookie cutter.

The rest of the ensemble performs yeoman service as an all-purpose gallery of rogues, peasants, keeners and thugs. Conn’s faithful dog, Tatters, a beloved onstage presence in many productions, is absent here, replaced by an assortment of yelps, growls and barks, some more convincing than others.

Dobbins and his Storm Theatre colleagues, by taking the play seriously, have come up with a version of “The Shaughraun” that’s well worth the effort.

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