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Tony Award winners Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen return to NY for this must-see marathon of the works of playwright John Millington Synge. logo
Marie Mullen in Riders to the Sea
(Photo © Keith Pattison)
Reddish-brown dirt covers the stage of the Gerald W. Lynch Theater for DruidSynge, the must-see -- if decidedly uneven -- 8 ½-hour John Millington Synge marathon which kicked off this year's Lincoln Center Festival. The malleable flooring immediately not only signals the earthy quality of the seminal playwright's work and his abiding interest in people of the soil, but suggests much about the hard, yet giving nature of the limited Synge oeuvre.

Director Garry Hynes and Francis O'Connor, the designer of the marathon's adaptable unit set, undoubtedly have taken their inspiration for this down-to-earth carpet -- on which many of the actors from Hynes' Druid Theatre Company move in bare feet -- from Christy Mahon's opening speech in act two of Synge's best known work, The Playboy of the Western World. Thinking about rising above his station in the world, Christy -- who's suddenly lionized for having killed his abusive father -- imagines a time when he "won't be the like of the clumsy young fellows do be ploughing all day in the earth and dung."

The choice of common dirt also indicates that Hynes is getting back to basics by setting Synge complete and unromanticized before audiences. It's as if she's saying, "Look at the world Synge created from the world he observed. Notice the influence he's had on subsequent playwrights right up to the present day." And since that's her valiant goal, what's called for is not simply watching DruidSynge as a collection of productions but as an event. As such, DruidSynge is required viewing for anyone claiming to be interested in where modern theater originated, where it is today and where it's going. It's an astonishing achievement, despite being uneven in execution for various reasons -- at least one of them inevitable: the inclusion of Deirdre of the Sorrows, the uncharacteristically stilted play keening over ingrained Gaelic woes that Synge had yet to finish when he died at 37.

DruidSynge is additionally worthy for the skill of the majority of its 19-member acting troupe. Foremost, there's actress Marie Mullen, who -- along with Hynes -- won the Tony Award for Martin McDonagh's Synge-influenced Beauty Queen of Leenane. Versatile and often magnificent, the now gray-haired Mullen appears in five of the six plays (and in at least that many evocative Kathy Strachan costumes). Asked to run the gamut of emotions from agitated to zealous, she hits each resoundingly. Other members of the troupe acting vigorously from the inside out are Aaron Monaghan, Eamon Morrissey, Mick Lally, Nick Lee, Sarah-Jane Drummey and Richard Flood. Catherine Walsh, playing Pegeen Mike in Playboy, is forceful as a lightning bolt, but too often her manner of clipping words makes her difficult to understand.

Hynes begins each of the six pieces --Riders to the Sea, The Tinker's Wedding, The Well of the Saints, The Shadow of the Glen, Playboy and Deirdre, in that order -- with an economical tableau. When the opaque black scrim lifts, the director presents a lone figure holding a pose before beginning an action.

This is most effective when first seen, in Riders to the Sea. The play, set in the Aran Islands, is a grim look at aging Maurya (Mullen), who's lost four of her six sons to their sea-going labor, senses a fifth is already dead. and fears the sixth is next. The piece also pays stark homage to the hardships the islands' inhabitants endure year after year. The Greek-tragedy-like grief that Maurya and daughters Cathleen (Louise Lewis) and Nora (Gemma Reeves) exhibit, as demonstrated by the three performers, does Synge great credit here.

While the lone figure is a striking convention, it is also a giveaway to a problem that occasionally mars DruidSynge. Hynes is essentially implying that we're witnessing something iconic; and the unwanted (and unverbalized) response from some spectators may be, "We'll be the judges of that."

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