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THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE

at South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Scott Proudfit

The latest generation of Irish playwrights seems heartset on single-handedly stemming the tide of tourism to its native land. Martin McDonagh, in particular, with his award-winning trilogy of plays set in the country's west coast, paints the grimmest of portraits of the Emerald Isle. Yet, as realized by director Andrew J. Robinson and his talented cast at SCR, the strongest of these three works, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is revealed as not only grim but downright scary, and heartbreaking as well. And just in time for St. Patrick's Day!

The theme of the piece is that the only true sin is holding on to something useful without ever intending to use it-whether it's a child's ball lost over a fence, a child herself, or one's sexuality. The focus of the play is the relationship between an embittered and crafty old woman, Mag (Anne Gee Byrd), and her caretaker daughter Maureen (Heather Ehlers), a 40-year-old virgin with a tenuous grip on reality. As the gray skies continually looming above their squalid home can attest, there is little hope for a ray of sunshine in this miserable place. And like the barren, wind-blasted countryside around this hovel, any hopes and dreams that her daughter may cultivate are ripped up by the conniving Mag before they can take root. Maureen's only ray of light comes in the form of a good-hearted neighbor on leave from his job in England, Pato (Tim Murphy), who believes that the not only is she far from useless-she is a beauty queen, no less, and a woman, more importantly.

Also like the skies above the house, McDonagh's palette is not comprised of black and white but shades of gray. What could have been merely the classic archetypal tragedy of a mother devouring her brood becomes much more in this play, as the abuser becomes the abused, and Mag's seeds of hatred grow strong in Maureen-the only things, it seems, that take root in this wasteland.

Ehlers is a wonder as Maureen. She stays true to McDonagh's intentions by revealing the character's pain and longing, her humanity, by degrees. Only at the end of Act One, in bra and slip, lording her sexuality over her "saintly" mother, does Ehlers' Maureen come to life. But even then, in the actress' eyes, we never lose the pathetic desperation behind this triumph. One can't imagine a more honest characterization, even from the lauded Broadway production. It's a difficult role at the heart of this difficult play, and Ehlers nails it.

Byrd as Mag is right on as well. She never succumbs to the crotchety and comic old lady stereotype. Nor does she become an evil cartoon, despite her blatantly theatrical plotting-the burning of a life-saving letter to the pining Maureen from her Pato, for instance, which is straight out of the melodrama tradition. Byrd gives us a straightforward and brutal depiction of a woman with whom we may never sympathize but in the end we understand.

Murphy, as the weak-willed but well-meaning Pato, is the perfect foil to these two women. His best work is in the aforementioned morning-after scene, in which he helplessly watches Maureen initially mock her offended mother, then ultimately cave in to her threats and her own insecurities. Rob King as Ray, Pato's frustrated and childish younger brother, hits the only wrong note in this otherwise flawless ensemble. His accent seems a bit off, which leads him to caricaturish readings that go for the joke and lack the depth of the other performances. Still, one can see what he's going for in his lively physicality-it's in the right direction. It's just too extreme a take on the role and seems appropriate for another show.

Director Robinson is apparently on a streak-his excellent Waiting for Godot is still up at the Matrix, proving that he is the go-to guy for difficult and important dramas. As with Godot, he pinpoints the strengths of the text, plays the charms as well, but makes the audience work for the real meat of the piece-never squandering the deep emotional resonance for easy surface histrionics. Scenic designer Michael Devine should also be credited for his distorted, symbolic set, which mirrors the heightened realities of the play, and for his appropriately threatening skies (lit ominously by Tom Ruzika), which indicate more than just atmosphere.

McDonagh may not paint a pretty picture of Leenane, but his devastating play demonstrates once more why Ireland is not just famous for its scenery, but for its literary tradition as well.

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane," presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tues.-Fri. 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 and 7:45 p.m. Mar. 7-Apr. 9. $26-45. (714) 708-5555.

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HENRY V

at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Libby Appel, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, considers her version of William Shakespeare's Henry V a "bare-bones" production. By this she means that it depends primarily upon the language and actors, rather than on William Bloodgood's backstage set design or David Murin's costumes, which are vaguely reminiscent of the early 15th century. Thus Appel puts the play in good hands, for Shakespeare wrote Henry V at the peak of his artistic powers (Hamlet came the following year), and her OSF acting company is superb.

Of course, one can't overlook Appel's creative contributions. Her blocking creates some memorable stage pictures. For example, five denizens of Eastcheap sadly discuss the death of Falstaff (not seen in this play) while they are arrayed along a set of moveable stairs: Mistress Quickly (Dee Maaske) at the top, the Boy (Robin Goodrin Nordli) at the bottom, the others between. These stage pictures are accented by Robert Peterson's dramatic lighting and Todd Barton's music.

Yet another ingenious stroke of staging is the climactic Battle of Agincourt, the mighty clash between the ragtag, outnumbered-but-victorious English army and the stronger French defenders. Appel, aided by fight choreographer and movement director John Sipes, stages much of the battle in slow motion in front of a wall of mirrors, creating the illusion of many more men onstage. Perhaps the most compelling vision Appel creates involves the Chorus (also Nordli), who presents the prologue with her "Muse of fire" speech and serves as narrator throughout the play. Appel keeps her onstage most of the time to bear witness to this exploration of kingship and power. Dressed in white shirt, vest, and overcoat with black pants, Nordli is stunning.

Also stunning is Dan Donohue as King Henry V. Donohue has played the character, starting as the carousing young Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I in 1998, throughout OSF's current history cycle. What may seem especially striking to Ashland regulars is not only how the character matures but also how this fine actor has grown with the role. One can particularly see how Hal's escapades with the roguish Falstaff and other Eastcheap lowlifes have made him a shrewd judge of character. On the other hand, those experiences have not served him as well when it comes to instinctively knowing if he can rightfully claim France-nor have they schooled him in the art of wooing a woman of his own class, Princess Katherine (Susan Champion) of France. He's at a loss for words despite his two stirring battle orations, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" and the St. Crispin's Day speech.

Among the other characters, David Kelly as Fluellen, the loyal Welsh captain; Ray Porter as Montjoy, the French envoy, and Bernard K. Addison as the Constable of France stand out in this large ensemble cast.

Overall, Appel and her team of actors and designers have created a muscular yet finely nuanced production that clearly delineates Shakespeare's masterful language, plot, and themes. As the opening production of OSF's 11-play season, it sets the tone for the next nine months and sends a clear message that the festival strives for and attains the highest standards.

"Henry V," presented by Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Ore. Feb. 18-Oct. 29. (541) 482-4331.

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FENCES

at the Lucie Stern Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

In setting out to chronicle 20th-century American black life through plays set in each decade, playwright August Wilson has become one of the foremost voices of American theatre. His writing is powerful and poetic, his characters memorable. These qualities come through beautifully in TheatreWorks' production of Fences (seen in its final preview), the 1985 work set in the late 1950s during the nascent civil rights movement.

Although the characters don't overtly acknowledge the civil rights movement, it's safe to assume that 53-year-old Troy Maxson (Anthony J. Haney), who works for the Pittsburgh garbage company, is promoted because of it. Otherwise, Troy, his family and his friends lead hardscrabble lives. Troy owns his house, humble though it may be, only because of the money his brother Gabriel (Colman Domingo) received when a combat wound left him mentally impaired.

Troy is a large, strong man who dominates his wife, Rose (Gloria Weinstock), and teenage son, Cory (Cyril Jamal Cooper). Coming home from work one afternoon, he and a friend, Jim Bono (James Brooks), seem like ordinary working men. They kid around good-naturedly, and Troy is playfully affectionate with Rose. As he drains his pint of gin, however, a more belligerent side emerges. Troy harbors bitterness over his inability to crack the color barrier and play on white baseball teams rather than in the Negro Leagues. Perhaps for that reason, he refuses to allow Cory to play college football. He says he doesn't want Cory to be disappointed as he was. Cory believes Troy doesn't want his son showing him up. Troy is imbued with a sense of responsibility to his family even though he feels fenced in by it-but not so fenced in that he doesn't father a child by another woman.

The climactic scene, in which he tells Rose about his dalliance, not only hurts her deeply but also reveals that she has been fenced in, too, subordinating her dreams to him and to their family's needs.

Director Harry Elam and his excellent cast have a clear sense of the play's emotional flow, allowing Wilson's themes and plot threads to emerge naturally. Haney captures the forces at work on Troy, making him a decent yet flawed man who can't overcome earlier traumas, such as father/son conflicts that compelled him to leave home when he was 14. Though Rose has long ago made peace with her choices, Weinstock gives her an inner strength that allows her to deal with Troy's transgressions. Cooper grows into his role as Cory as the youth finds the courage to stand up to his father, then the humility to accept his mother's sage advice in the moving final scene.

Brooks is likable and wise as Troy's friend. Domingo is sweetly daft as the mentally impaired Gabriel. Rounding out the cast, Peter J. Macon does well as Lyons, Troy's adult son from an earlier marriage, even though the role isn't well-developed. Rashida "Cocoa" Bryant, who alternates with Britnee Barnes, is appealing as Raynell, Troy's illegitimate daughter.

Production values are strong with Andrea Bechert's set, Allison Connor's costumes, Christopher Neumeyer's sound and Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting, es

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