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Review: THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD at Atlas Performing Arts Center

Review: THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD at Atlas Performing Arts Center

The Playboy of the Western World runs through November 20.

Great stories are timeless. The most enduring literary and theatrical works are those which transcend their time and place to say something essential about the human condition to audiences of all eras. Solas Nua, a DC-based Irish arts organization, is presenting a lively and engaging contemporary updating of a classic work of early twentieth-century Irish theatre.

"The Playboy of the Western World" is the most famous work of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909.) When the play opened at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin in January of 1907, the performance was disrupted by Irish republicans and nationalists. The rioters were angered by the story, in which a ruffian who claims to have killed his father stumbles into a pub in County Mayo and charms the local denizens, feeling that it insulted the Irish people.

Solas Nua's production is the U.S. premiere of an adaptation of Synge's work by Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle which opened at the Abbey on the centenary of the original in 2007. Directed by Shanara Gabrielle, it opened at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on November 3 and runs until November 20.

The production design by Nadir Bey and Jessica Trementozzi does a great deal to connect the audience with the story. The intimate round seating places the audience inside the modern Dublin pub where Pegeen (the wonderfully harried Rebecca Ballinger) tends bar on behalf of her hoodlum father Michael Flaherty (Ian Armstrong).

One night, while Michael and his associates discuss business and the ongoing negotiations for Pegeen's nuptials to Sean Keogh (a hilariously anemic James Lacey), Christopher Malomo, a recent Nigerian émigré, enters the bar, seeking an address where a friend lives. Played by Jamil Joseph, Malomo claims to have fled his country after murdering his "successful businessman" father in a fit of rage. Michael is impressed by Christopher's resolve and offers him a job working security at the pub, which the latter accepts.

Over the course of the next several hours, Christopher charms Pegeen, a local, recently-widowed madam, Michael's underlings, and a trio of wide-eyed schoolgirls, all of whom are enamored with his story and project unto him their own fantasies about escaping the doldrums of their lives. Christopher and Pegeen are on the verge of running off together when another visitor from Nigeria arrives who casts doubt on Christopher's story.

The play moves at breakneck speed; the sharp dialogue exchanges and kinetic fight scenes have the audience's heads moving side to side like a Wimbledon tennis match. The entire cast performs with vigor. Joseph gives a dynamic performance as Christopher, delivering grandiloquent speeches about love, freedom, and redemption one minute and cowering in fear the next. He and Ballenger's Pegeen have engaging chemistry and play off each other brilliantly. The only riots likely to occur in the Atlas are those of riotous laughter.

Solas Nua artistic director Rex Daugherty said he hopes theirs will be the first of many American productions.

"It's such an amazing adaptation of an Irish staple," Daugherty said. "It broadens the canon of Irish work, and I think it's really important that US-based companies are looking at the multicultural, intercultural identity of modern Ireland, so I hope this production is done across the United States."

Strong language, sexual content, stage violence.

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