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Review: THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD at Ronin Theatre

Playing at the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix through May 29th

Review: THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD at Ronin Theatre In the early 1900s, John Millington Synge was the premiere dramatist for the Irish Literary Revival, a movement that encouraged more visibility of Gaelic heritage/language and the growth of Irish nationalism. This was a resurgence in Irish literature, folktales, poetry, and music that highlighted the natural beauty of Ireland and the simple dignity of the Irish peasantry. The Playboy of the Western World, performed in 1907, did indeed capture the rolling lyrical language of this period and alternately was an adaptation of old Gaelic heroic tales, that often brought to light hard truths to the audience. Audiences that have received this play, have rushed the stage, thrown stink bombs at actors, and even tried to shut down the theatres that were performing it. Thankfully, the audiences at the Irish Cultural Center, where this play is staged, were less reactionary than in previous productions, but it still carries the weight and history of the productions before it... it is a production that leaves people talking.

Admittedly, Irish Revival literature is not something one can typically see in central Phoenix, but Ronin Theatre took a chance, and rightfully so, with this controversial masterpiece by Synge. The story follows Christy Mahon, the man who stood up to a domineering and cruel father by promptly hitting him with a loy (shovel), effectively killing him, and stumbling into a pub to escape what he is almost certain is the law coming for him. Instead of finding sanctuary, he is unexpectedly lauded as a hero and given a pedestal, and his life is irrevocably changed as an unlikely hero and public figure.

Cody Goulder, director of this production, has tapped a wealth of talented actors and crew to bring this story to life. Also, having such a play, one that caused its fair share of riots in Ireland and the United States, set within the Irish Cultural Center, adds to the immersive ambiance and experience of the show. Sit in the front row, and one finds themselves a part of the pub that Goulder has recreated, with most characters asking one for their thoughts, comfort, and even to sing along to a pub song or two. Goulder makes sure that the players keep the audience engaged with activity throughout the space and no detail is spared. During raucous and rowdy scenes (it is set in a bar after all - one must expect it), Alex Kass choreographs intricate scenes that the actors execute with a nice fluidity and grace. His action scenes are quite enjoyable to watch. Elizabeth Broeder's sound design weaves olden and modern elements into the production almost to imply that this production, while written 100 years ago, still espouses some ideas and ideals that we still, as a society, need to improve upon. It is no surprise also that everyone was dressed superbly, a talent the costumer Melody Knudson is all too familiar with. Rounding out the crew, Keath Hall, no stranger to the land of tech, dressed the set and grabbed props that completed the illusion.

Ben Corbett, the dialect coach, truly deserves a special nod here for aiding in this production. The actors, in turn, should be proud of their performances. All had shades of the Irish brogue, which is not easy to do in a piece of this style because it contains flowery and poetic speech that is as important to the show as the action. I would argue that the attention to detail affecting this speech is almost Shakespearean in nature and I applaud all their efforts and instructor. The one thing that I will say for this production is that sound does bounce around the space so the poetic language is sometimes lost in it. Intentional listening is a must to engage with this story in this space.

In the company, Samantha Hanna's performance as hardened and sarcastic Pegeen shows a mastery of the Irish accent as well as its colloquialisms. She navigates the space with such unbridled realism that it's easy to believe you're in a pub, ready for her to throw a snark your way. She spends most of the play this way because, as a woman of the time, she is afforded almost no independence in her life and decisions (something that society is still all too familiar with today, unfortunately). While the ending doesn't necessarily point to a favorable resolution, her portrayal is indicative of possible growth, if she breaks from societal convention.

Alana Samuels, as Widow Quin, plays up the seductive trope as she tries to win Christy's affections away from Pegeen. As someone with an airy demeanor and an easy smile, it's often questionable why Christy would choose Pegeen over her. But, as we learn more about the Widow, she certainly is more than she appears. Samuels' moves are slick and methodical, and while her poker face never belies it, her actions speak of one of devilish intentions not to be discounted.

Eric Bond, as Shawn, brings the comedic elements into this show with just the right flavor at just the right moments. Bond, an actor who has delivered farcical comedy with a twist of a pinky, is wonderfully nuanced and contained with none of that energy lost here. His nemesis, Brandon Gray, as Christy, revels in his own character's buffoonery and awkwardness, making him an uncharacteristic hero for people to admire. At a time when Ireland was fighting to have their voice heard, it is understandable that he represents the underdog a town can get behind as a metaphor for taking control rather than being dominated by the tyranny of evil. Rounding out the men, Van Rockwell, as Old Mahon, is appropriately gruff and frustrated, ironically making Christy's depiction of him more of a lie than of a legend. Rockwell's attempt to deal with a son with a flair for the overdramatic is hilarious, and admittedly one often feels worse for the father than the son because he plays upon all he must endure as Christy's father.

Playing double-duty as the men and the women of the town, Kate Haas, Antoinette Martin-Hanson, and Taylor Tunnell as Michael James/Nelly, Philly/Susan, and Jimmy/Sara, respectively, are delightful. As women, they played up the "silly girls" mentality a la Beauty and the Beast, but it was their roles as men that were best. As men, they donned mustaches but they played their characters so adeptly that there is an argument that it's not needed, as Martin-Hanson proves at the beginning of Act III when she ripped hers off during the opening song. Haas, as Pegeen's overbearing but loving father, is divine as the proud papa that only wants the best for her. Martin-Hanson, with a Puck-like twinkle in her eye, mesmerizes the crowd as she strums the guitar and as a rabble-rousing bar patron. Finally, Tunnell's complementary bar crowd character rounds the men out in the trifecta of talent.

There is palpable excitement to see what's in store for this fledgling theatre company that is committed to bringing a different sort of storytelling to the Valley. As their second live production, there is a quality and commitment to the text with exemplary storytelling that is often missing when details are left to hang by the wayside. Knowing that we all crave to be the hero in our stories, this production reminds us deftly how sometimes the act of getting there might bring a realization that one might not be ready for, but in realizing, one can grow beyond their previous imagination.

Cast & Crew:

Cody Goulder - Director
Kristina Metz - Stage Manager
Matt Clarke - Assistant Stage Manager
Melody Knudson - Costumes
Alex Kass - Fight Choreographer
Ben Corbett - Vocal/dialect coach

CAST
Brandon Gray - Christy Mahon
Samantha Hanna - Pegeen Mike
Eric Bond - Shawn Keogh
Alana Samuels - Widow Quin
Van Rockwell - Old Mahon
Kate Haas - Michael James/Nelly
Taylor Tunnell - Jimmy/Sara
Antoinette Martin-Hanson - Philly/Susan

Get your tickets at the Irish Cultural Center website or the door. The production runs until May 29th.

Ronin Theatre Company is committed to the production, presentation, and collaboration of all artists with a story to tell. An unbound theatre experience focusing on simple storytelling, adding [their] voice to the local scene.



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