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The Yeats Project

The Irish Rep's ambitious mounting of eight one-acts by William Butler Yeats is an irresistible glimpse into the poet-playwright's determination to tell his country's myths. logo
Peter Cormican and Justin Stoney in Purgatory
(© Carol Rosegg)
In our advancing technological age, less of the past is being lost. Want to hear William Butler Yeats recite "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"? Go to Youtube or elsewhere on the Internet. However, if you want to hear the complete plays of Yeats declaimed, then attend The Yeats Project, which the Irish Repertory Theatre and its artistic directors Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly have prepared with undaunted ambition to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the poet-playwright's death.

True, Yeats' works -- set in bygone (sometimes imaginary) eras as if they're traditional folk tales dramatized -- are now more effective as historical artifacts than as pieces emotionally relevant to a modern mentality. But the eight one-acts the Irish Rep is presenting are not only collectively irresistible as a look at Yeats' determination to steep his audiences in the myths that simultaneously underlie national pride and national shame, but offer an opportunity to see the ground set for such future dramatists as Synge, O'Casey, and Beckett.

Cycle A -- which one can see first or last -- consists of "The Countess Cathleen," which is Yeats' obliquely religious response to the 19th-century famine via an ancient martyr; "The Cat and the Moon," in which a blind man and a lame man are asked to choose between living intact on earth or acquiring heavenly blessing; and "On Baile's Strand," which deals with the horrific incident wherein the gallant Irish folk hero Cuchulain meets a stranger and makes a tragic mistake.

The five Cycle B plays reiterate Yeats' themes. For example, "Purgatory" presents another father-son conflict. "The Land of Heart's Desire" is a fairy tale featuring its own fairy, and "Cathleen ni Houlihan" is another tale in which the battle between good and bad souls recur and a self-sacrificing spiritual figure dominates.

Mounting The Yeats Project is clearly an immense burden, and that undoubtedly explains why the plays sometimes look unpolished and why its tireless players -- Kevin Collins, Peter Cormican, Terry Donnelly, Patrick Fitzgerald, Sean Gormley, Amanda Quaid, Amanda Sprecher, Justin Stoney, Fiana Toibin and William J. Ward -- have rollercoaster-like ups and downs.

Nevertheless, seeing The Yeats Project is like witnessing how and when -- to paraphrase Yeats -- a terrible beauty was born.

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