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Translations, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

This will be brief. I was not a sympathetic member of the audience when I saw Brian Friel's Translations at the Biltmore last week. I struggled to keep an open mind, but I could not attend to the play, which was as completely predictable as I feared it would be. It's about two pathetic attempts to bridge the divide between barefoot Irish and monstrous English in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. I saw only a stageful of gifted actors trying to breathe in an anaerobic environment.

It's 1833. The British are mapping Ireland, as a way of oppressing the natives by nailing down property rights. The Army's liaison in the neighborhood - he's paid two shillings a day! - is the son of the local hedge school teacher. He believes - at the outset - that the British will pull Ireland out of its cultural bog. The moral of the story is that people prefer to pull themselves out of bogs, and can be counted upon to resist, quite violently if necessary, the condescending help of their neighbors. 

It's true that I was momentarily swept up indeed by the performances of Susan Lynch and Chandler Williams. They played the bright and impatient Irish girl, Maire, and the romantic English cartographer, Lieutenant Yolland, two young people who are drawn to one another even though they don't have a language in common. (Maire speaks Gaelic, Latin, and a little Greek, but no English.) The big love scene at the beginning of the third act was quite affecting - as love stories usually are. But the lovers' naïveté was ultimately unsympathetic, and the rest of the play left me cold. Niall Buggy did a fine job of playing the drunken old scholar, Hugh, even though the character is a generic token of Irish persecution. There was little that he could do to present his character as anything but a cliché. The dreadful familiarity of a soap opera foredoomed the gallant efforts of David Costabile (Hugh's diligent son) and Alan Cox (Hugh's ambitious son) to say something fresh about sibling rivalry. Morgan Hallett was tremendous in a role that went nowhere, playing a girl with an unexplained speech defect. (Is that the sound of a symbol crashing?) Dermot Crowley's pickled sidekick was a heroically shameless turn. Geraldine Hughes, Jeremy Bobb, and Graeme Malcolm made me ache to see them in other roles. Francis O'Connor (sets and costumes), Davy Cunningham (lights), John Leonard (sound) and Sam Jackson (music) set the stage for a brilliant showdown between poverty and enchantment. But there was nothing that director Garry Hynes could do to breathe life into Mr Friel's stereotype.

Translations took forever to end. (March 2007)

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