Irish Eyes

No single event stamps its imprint more indelibly on the body politic than the taking of a hostage. In fact, hostage situations involving American soldiers, journalists and businessmen have each proved the point that nothing--not internal racial discord, impending economic disaster or even a presidential sex scandal--strikes a more resonant chord than do the alarm bells of nationalism.

And nowhere have the chimes of patriotism sounded more like a death knell than in Ireland, where the centuries-old struggle for independence from Britain has cost an untold number of lives. Recognizing his countrymen's need to broaden their debate beyond provincial wars of words (and the all-too-occasional car bomb), Irish playwright Frank McGuinness examines the effects of blind nationalism in his three-character play, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. The premiere production of Denver's newest theater company, Tir Na nog, director Patrick Balai's radical interpretation of the play proves to be an intriguing evening of theater, even though his highly symbolic staging sometimes has the unfortunate effect of cutting out the heart of the playwright's message.

As the drama begins, Adam (Guy Williams), an American doctor, and Edward (Tony Cohen), an Irish journalist, exercise and argue with each other in the room they share as captives of Lebanese terrorists. But their banter is more than just idle prison talk: Spirited discussion--laced with humor, vulgarities and non sequiturs--is the only real weapon they have in their ongoing battle with sensory deprivation and its resultant madness. Soon the two men are joined by Michael (Jeremy Cole), a British academic. For the remainder of the 140-minute play, the three prisoners begrudgingly make the best of their nightmarish situation, which has the effect of unmasking each man's national biases and prejudices. Gradually they accept one another and band together in defiance of their faceless Arab enemies.

Balai has chosen to place each character on one of three twenty-foot-square platforms spaced ten feet apart. Each individual island of humanity is secured by steel chains to the other platforms, the stage floor and even a few points on the auditorium's walls. Stark stage lighting illuminates each individual character at appropriate times throughout the episodic drama; during some scenes, the entire stage is flooded with light to indicate the dawning of a new day, as well as to highlight those fleeting moments of harmony that pass between the men.

However, while such a visual treatment elicits the play's theme about the interdependence of humanity, Balai's chain-and-wood web calls undue attention to the director's exercise in theatrical message-making. As a result, we have difficulty focusing on the evolving relationships of three complex and opinionated men who have been thrust together against their own will. For instance, Michael breaks down after telling the story of his wife's death, and the priggish professor understandably asks Edward for a moment in which he might compose himself. Twenty feet across the stage, Edward dutifully turns his back. But that's a poor substitute for the poignancy that would naturally have arisen had the two men been shackled within inches of each other. The same emotional disconnect occurs following Adam's singing of "Amazing Grace," which Williams belts out while standing on his platform center stage. In response, his companions whisper "Thank you," a reaction that makes you wonder whether their gratitude is for Adam's inspirational message or for the precious silence that follows it.

Technical problems aside, the three men manage to create a credible allegiance that reaches its apotheosis when one of them is permitted to go home. Stepping down off their platforms, two of the men comb each other's hair in a moment that is, in this particular production, enhanced by their having remained yards apart for the entire play.

Though his Irish dialect initially presents some problems to ears more attuned to American slang, Cohen delivers the most effective portrayal. He's always quick with a quip and an easy shrug of his shoulders that together bespeak Edward's mercurial changes in mood. And when Cohen takes an imaginary ride with Cole and Williams in their own idealized version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the three men soar straight into our hearts.

A few Celtic folk songs underscore the theme of the play, though Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (best known as the theme music from the movie Platoon) is clearly out of place here. The awkward appearance of this classical work is emblematic of the problems associated with Balai's staging; as interesting as his choices sometimes are, his heavy-handed conceptual approach bogs down McGuinness's lyrical drama more often than it elevates it.


Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, through April 11 at the Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 623-0524.


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