Chicago Theater Review: THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN (Seanachaí Theatre Company)

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by Tony Frankel on October 15, 2011

in Theater-Chicago

THE SHADOW OF A GREAT PLAY

The birth of the Irish Republic occurred around Dublin in 1916. Aiming to end British rule, Irish Volunteers staged an insurrection known as the Easter Rising, a rebellion many Irishmen did not support. However, after quelling the week-long insurrection, the British Government’s hostile reaction – including conscription (compulsory enlistment) and executions of ringleaders – instigated the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), a guerrilla war escalated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against the British government and its forces in Ireland.

The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey - Seanachaí Theatre Company at the Irish American Heritage Center – Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

It is during this war that playwright Sean O’Casey sets The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first of his Dublin Trilogy; the other two are Juno and the Paycock (1924), which explores the frenzied aftermath of Ireland’s independence; and The Plough and the Stars (1926), which takes place during the Easter Rising (the production of the latter at The Abbey Theatre inspired rioting by Irish Patriots).

Seanachaí (pronounced shawn-uh-key) Ensemble’s production is a mixed bag: while director John Mossman has assembled a capable and distinctive ensemble, the performances and dialects often vacillate in a strange place between caricature and reality; and while there are moments of stark believability, Mossman’s awkward staging lends itself neither to comedy nor tension, even as his design team creates a flawless wartime atmosphere. In other words, the show looks great, but lacks grit.

The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey - Seanachaí Theatre Company at the Irish American Heritage Center – Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

It is in a poor slum outside Dublin in 1920 that amateur poet Donal Davoren (Shane Kenyon) makes a huge mistake while rooming with the cowardly philosopher and peddler Seumas (Jeff Christian). When Donal is wrongly perceived to be an IRA gunman by tenement dwellers, he enjoys and does not refute the notoriety, no doubt to fill the void left by his poetic inadequacies. When Minnie Powell (Anne Sunseri), a pretty, young, neighboring patriot, falls for the counterfeit Republican fighter, Donal’s deceit is cemented. However, when an IRA volunteer and friend of Seumas’ drops off a satchel for safekeeping in the tiny room, its contents – bombs – set into motion a bloody and irreversible chain of events.

The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey - Seanachaí Theatre Company at the Irish American Heritage Center – Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

At the time of writing Shadow, O’Casey had become disenchanted with Irish politics, torn between the ideals of Irish Nationalism and the means used to achieve that autonomy. He is a master of realism, creating characters that spout rich Dublin phrasing and dialects, even as they are imbued with a diminishing patriotic fervor. Whether those characters are drunk or sober, demented or sane, lazy or strong, actors who take on O’Casey’s dialogue must not just be grounded in reality (as some display in this production) but also have a captivating internal life (which is only hinted at).

The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey - Seanachaí Theatre Company at the Irish American Heritage Center – Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

O’Casey was once a Socialist and a Laborer, but while he supported Unionist causes, he could not always support the leaders, and resigned from the Union-sponsored Irish Citizen Army. Perhaps that is why the three main protagonists are chockablock with self-delusion: Minnie is impressionable, Donal is caught up in a fantasy, and Seumas is fraught with torpor. The actors on hand valiantly take a straight-forward approach to their characterizations, never seeming to plumb the depths of their tense situation; there needed to be better listening and organic reactions to make the situation palpable and heartbreaking. Without bold choices, we only get a shadow of a great play.

The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’Casey - Seanachaí Theatre Company at the Irish American Heritage Center – Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

Most commendable is the production design, including Stephen Carmody’s realistically squalid set and Beth Laske-Miller’s authentic costumes. However, the dialogue coaching (Elise Kauzlaric) was a source of great consternation for us: the attempt to create different dialects for different characters is to be applauded, but the results were inconsistent, such as one character going from a long “I” to the Irish “Oi” and back again. Plus, when dialects were spot-on, the attempt at authenticity sometimes rendered them unintelligible. (Both my companions and myself swore up and down that Minnie Powell’s last name was Pearl until we looked at the program – Minnie Pearl in Ireland?).

Seanachaí is the Gaelic word for Storyteller, as stories are at the very core of Irish culture. Staging O’Casey’s play certainly keeps this story alive, but Mossman’s direction could not make it compelling.

photos by Jackie Jasperson

The Shadow of a Gunman
Seanachaí Theatre Company
The Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago
ends on October 23, 2011
for tickets, visit Seanachaí

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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