The Yeats Project

Think William Butler Yeats, and gorgeous Irish poetry comes to mind, not theatre. But the Irish Rep is doing its best to alter that perception with The Yeats Project, whose centerpiece is full stagings of eight of the poet's plays. Though uneven, the productions offer the chance to see these rarities and understand Yeats' influence on the Irish dramatists who followed him.
The most successful works are in Cycle B, which begins with The Land of Heart's Desire, a fable about Mary Bruin (Amanda Quaid, who shines here and elsewhere), a young woman who finds her life stifling, emotionally and spiritually. When a fairy (a sweet but shrill Amanda Sprecher) visits the home Mary shares with her husband (Justin Stoney, in one of several amiable turns) and his folks, she has the choice of abandoning them for a life of adventure. Yeats' surprise ending makes the play's meaning — does it glorify or damn a life of sensuality? — deliciously ambiguous.
A Beckettian tramp (Patrick Fitzgerald, whose work throughout is excellent) is at the center of The Pot of Broth, a shaggy-dog story about how he cons a hard-nosed housewife (Terry Donnelly) and her daft husband (Peter Cormican) out of a meal by convincing them that a stone makes terrific soup. While he extols the rock, they don't notice him scouring the house for ingredients. Purgatory, a precursor to Martin McDonagh's works, is one of the darkest plays, about an old man (imbued with volcanic anger and regret by Cormican) who, with his son (Stoney), is coming to terms with the violence of his past.
While the abstract A Full Moon in March tries one's patience, Cycle B ends on a compelling note of Irish patriotism in the allegorical Cathleen Ni Houlihan, in which a young man (an impressive Kevin Collins) is seduced emotionally and mentally by an old crone (a delightful Fiana Toibin) when he learns of the injustices she's suffered. The crone represents Ireland, of course, and the young man is just one of the many who fought for his country's independence. As the play ends, we're reminded of the rash patriotic acts found throughout Sean O'Casey's works.
Ciarán O'Reilly directed the final four plays in Cycle B, while Charlotte Moore directed the first and all the pieces in Cycle A. O'Reilly has guided them with a steady hand, ensuring that the tone and performances in each are deliciously distinct. Moore's direction of The Land of Heart's Desire and the three fantastical plays in Cycle A is more uniform. A story-theatre feel pervades (costume designer David Toser's quaint take on medieval dress may have something to do with it): Whether it's The Land of Heart's Desire or the Beckett-like The Cat and the Moon, about a pair of beggars (Fitzgerald, well-matched with a haunting Sean Gormley) on a pilgrimage, the plays feel like exceptionally erudite programming for young people.
Jan Hartley's handsome projections enhance Charles Corcoran's wisely spare set, and both combine with Brian Nason's lighting to bring various locales to gorgeous life. It's rare to see any of Yeats' dramatic works revived; for this reason alone, either cycle falls into the must-see category. But for those looking for excellence in their theatrical rarities, Cycle B is the imperative.

Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC. April 15-May 3. Schedule varies. (212) 727-2737.