At first glance, the Shop's tiny stage seems a poor choice to house a production of Irish playwright Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. In fact, the cramped confines of the storefront theater appear especially ill-suited to the emotional climax of Friel's masterpiece, which calls for five unmarried Irish sisters to express their deepest feelings in a rousing, freewheeling folk dance. What's more, the 150-minute drama also contains several outdoor scenes, including one in which a brash young man speaks to the women from the limb of a tree and, later, from the roof of their humble abode. And a cursory look at the nine-character cast list for Friel's play would indicate that the curtain call alone for the show would wind up staged on a diagonal line in order to accommodate a single row of hand-holding actors.
On second thought, though, the Shop's intimate surroundings might serve as the perfect hothouse for Friel's downtrodden dreamers to attain full flower. At least, that's what director Michael R. Duran and the Hunger Artists Ensemble must be hoping for with their small-scale production of Friel's account of growing up in 1936 Ireland. But while the lamentations and joys of these sentimentally drawn characters are frequently palpable, Duran never manages to fire up his production beyond a simmer, much less blow the roof off the Mundy sisters' hovel of despair.
As the play begins, Agnes (Kristin Teig), Chris (C. Kelly Douglass), Rose (Krishna Sallman) and Maggie (Lisa Mumpton) trade stories about the festival of Lughnasa (Lugh is the Celtic god of the harvest). In addition to being a cause for celebration, the approaching holiday serves as an annual reminder to the women that none of them have attained economic liberation through marriage, a situation that their straitlaced sister, Kate (Martha Greenberg), is able to mitigate by virtue of being employed as the village schoolteacher. Also living in the house are the girls' uncle, a missionary priest named Jack (Chuck Muller), and Chris's illegitimate son, Michael (G. Scott Campbell), who serves as the play's narrator (Matthew Seth Waysdorf stands in as Young Michael in flashback scenes that Campbell describes). Rounding out this ragtag clan of County Donegal is Michael's ne'er-do-well father, Gerry (Jordan Leigh Gurner), a sweet-talking Gramophone salesman (this month, anyway) whose all-too-rare visits to his wife and son do little to convince them of his familial rectitude.
All of the actors make genuine efforts to capture the subtleties and richness of Friel's lyrical play, and their endeavors frequently pay off. Campbell, for instance, tugs at our heartstrings during his final monologue (appropriately underscored by a lilting Celtic tune), imbuing his delivery with an obvious love for the playwright's language that his colleagues would do well to emulate. And the fabled Act One dance sequence is sure to bring a smile to the stoniest of visages.
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But most of the actors fall short of delivering effective portrayals in the small theater, where nuance reigns supreme. It isn't so much that we doubt the veracity of their portrayals; instead, it's the performers' tendency to underplay the drama's crucial moments that's the problem. For example, when the naive Rose tells her family that she's spent the afternoon picking berries in the solitary company of a man from the village, the sisters react to Rose's story by looking at the floor, shuffling their feet and turning away from the audience. You'd have to be a piece of linoleum to learn from the sisters' downcast eyes that Rose has in all likelihood been taken advantage of by a notorious town thug.
His actors' understated portrayals notwithstanding, Duran's chamber-music approach to Friel's symphony of words makes for some wonderfully poetic moments not lost on last week's opening-night audience, which generously awarded the production two curtain calls. One can only imagine the chorus of accolades these actors would have received had their portrayals been enlarged by the theater's space restrictions rather than diminished by them.
Dancing at Lughnasa, presented by the Hunger Artists Theater Ensemble, through April 25 at The Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 893-5438.