Brendan Behan's The Hostage is a meaty lesson to mixers of theatre and political history. Rather than disguising Irish historical discourse in characters' clothing, or attempting to force theatre out of amassed "facts" and timelines, Behan makes us a funny little cosmos—a boarding house full of nutcases. It's a smart container in which the whole idea of armed racial conflict en masse—here the IRA vs. the British Army—becomes tragic, bizarre, and somewhat absurd. Pasadena Shakespeare Company's production, under the helming of David Paul Needles, succeeds beautifully at creating that tightly controlled chaos that makes both satire and seriousness possible. The actors portraying the house's assorted misfits—its whores, transvestites, evangelists, and general crazies—excel at a kind of broad goofiness that feels at times heavily mannered and vague. Yet the leads are an absolute joy to watch, having developed rooted characters that are as jovial as they are truly interesting.
In Dublin of 1958, we enter this boarding house, a "rabbit hutch" of sorts in which we find plenty of revelry, mean banter, wild nationalistic diatribes, and a few great tunes. When the place turns into an IRA barracks for the night—to house a British private taken hostage—it becomes a curious hub of hospitality as the entire group struggles to make the hostage's imprisonment as comfortable as possible. The house's proprietors are the wonderfully salty Gillian Bagwell as Meg Dillon, who believes the Irish national cause is as valid as it ever was, and her mate Pat, an IRA old-timer who thinks the movement is dead, played by a loveably grouchy Horace Martin.
As their British hostage, Geoffrey Pomeroy is graceful as he makes the impressive transition from a high-spirited though confused youth to a man enraged by the prospect of his own execution. His love scenes with the eminently talented Laura Russell—as the sweet, awkward young housekeeper Teresa, who finds him magnetic—are comical yet tender.
Lary Ohlson gives a standout performance as the invasive IRA Officer who forces everyone to turn the gathering place into a ridiculously "strict" temporary prison, as he marches about, craning his neck around corners for the least bit of "suspicious" activity.
"What is a race?" the hostage asks late in the play. It's a funny scene, and the question comes as a surprise to us, partly because it's such a stumper. In this way of suddenly teasing us with seriousness, Behan so gently makes the point that racial/political conflict, while justified in theory and by collective history, is utterly at odds with our natural, everyday need to relate to, tolerate, and entertain one another. A fine core ensemble brings his point home, and even the less intriguing lunatics do a great job of creating the overall tone of warmth and humanity that carries this lively, thoughtful production.
"The Hostage," presented by the Pasadena Shakespeare Company at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. July 13-Aug. 12. $15-18. (626) 564-8564.