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Review: Irish Rep's A Touch of the Poet Resonates in an Online Production

The beloved off-Broadway company is keeping theater alive virtually — even big O'Neill plays.

Robert Cuccioli stars as Cornelius Melody in Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet.
(courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre)

When the pandemic struck New York City in March, most theaters were forced to close their doors right away. But not all of them closed up shop. Almost from the start, Irish Repertory Theatre, one of off-Broadway's mainstays, was brainstorming ways to keep things going. Just five days after two of its productions, Incantata and Lady G, played their final performances on March 12, the theater announced "The Shows Must Go Online," an initiative to bring theater into audiences' homes. Since then, the company has delivered a stream of works, in the form of prerecorded productions, online discussions, and more, through the spring and summer. And they haven't stopped.

Led by Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O'Reilly, this remarkable company continues its work with an online production of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet, which was originally scheduled for an onstage production back in March. Staging this longish O'Neill work (two hours and 30 minutes) is challenging enough under normal circumstances. But not letting a word like "normal" stop it, Irish Rep has created an absorbing, if at times technically distracting, production of a powerful O'Neill play that resonates in significant ways right now.

It should be noted that this production is not a reading. All the actors were recorded in different locations to maintain social-distancing protocols, and their performances were brought together by video editor Sarah Nichols, complete with a scenic backdrop designed by Charlie Corcoran and period-inspired costumes by Alejo Vietti (clothes, props, and green screens were shipped to all of the actors' homes). Kudos are due to the cast and the entire production team for undertaking such a task with any play, much less one by O'Neill.

The play's action takes place on a single day, July 27, 1828, in the tavern of Cornelius Melody (Robert Cuccioli), an Irish immigrant whose self-aggrandizing claim to fame is his recognition for bravery in a battle during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the anniversary of that battle, and Major Melody is nursing a hangover from the night before. This is nothing new for his browbeaten wife, Nora (Kate Forbes in a witheringly anguished performance), who loves her verbally abusive, philandering "Con," never mind that he has reduced her to begging for credit because he refuses to sell his last gentlemanly possession, an old mare. But his daughter, Sara (a delightfully abrasive Belle Aykroyd), is having none of it. She sees through her father's phony American accent and his highfaluting airs. She barks at him in an Irish brogue now and then just to remind him where they're from.

Kate Forbes as Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet.
(courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre)

But Sara's a bit of a pretender herself. She working on marrying up, and she has her eyes set on Simon Harford, a young, wealthy Yankee she's nursing back from a sudden illness (we never meet him). When his mother, Deborah (Mary McCann), unexpectedly comes by the tavern and Con unwittingly makes sexual advances toward her, any chance of getting the blessing of Simon's father for a marriage goes down the drain, not that Sara really had a chance of that anyway. Things keep getting worse as the day goes on and the liquor keeps flowing, with Con's dreams of his glory days seeming to become more meaningless by the second. But when he makes a foolhardy attempt to defend Sara's and his own honor, an act of violence lays bare the family's lies once and for all.

Irish Rep deserves props for translating A Touch of the Poet to an online format during a time when, in New York at least, there is no other way to see a production of it. And now seems like a good time to revisit this less well-known O'Neill play. Con's character — arrogant, self-important, delusional — feels like an apt avatar for a one or more of our current US politicians. Bringing that character to life onscreen, though, isn't easy. Watching the production, I sometimes had the feeling I was looking at an old '70s PBS videorecording, where the greenscreen backgrounds are obviously fake and the actors' faces are sometimes distorted in weird ways. The technological limitations of this production now and then elicited a raised eyebrow from me, and an occasional chuckle.

But I found, more often than not, that the strong, entertaining performances kept the moments of clunky visuals to a minor inconvenience. Cuccioli plays Con with smoldering resignation until he erupts at the end in a revelatory tour de force. And the action is lightened throughout with comic moments from the gaggle of tavern denizens (Ciaran Byrne, Andy Murray, David O'Hara, David Sitler in various roles). It takes a lot to put on an O'Neill play, and a whole lot to do one online. Irish Rep's contributions to our currently challenged theater scene are welcome, and for O'Neill fans especially, this production is one that should not be missed.

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