Los Angeles Theater Review: THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Jason Rohrer on December 12, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


In the 1960s, Beckett and Pinter started a vogue of shabby-old-man-reminiscing plays so influential that as late as 1995, Sebastian Barry went ahead and wrote one too.  But far from the esoterica of Krapp’s Last Tape or The Caretaker, Mr. Barry’s Dylan Saunders and Brian Dennehy in Sebastian Barry's THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM at the Mark Taper Forum.The Steward of Christendom is a cop’s-eye-view travelogue of the violence suffered by early 20th Century Irishmen.  This history is related in Joycean soliloquies by a demented old man in a County Home.  Gently rambling anecdotes wander in and out of vignettes remembered from life with his three daughters, his son, and various young men.  But his interactions with the staff of his institution are the moments in the play that completely work, because they are in service of a concrete result:  He has a suit of clothes made to be buried in.  Nothing else in the play has such focus, and after two and a half hours all that memory leads not to a climax but more memories.

James Lancaster and Brian Dennehy in Sebastian Barry's THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM at the Mark Taper Forum.Most of the traditional Irish clichés are in those reflections: poverty; bucolic poetry as the God-given rhetorical style even of school dropouts; conflicted loyalties under English rule: Catholics, Protestants, Michael Collins; the basic goodness of all countrymen at heart; Irish lads dying ironically in a world war while civil war divides their homeland behind them; steerage passage to America; daughters stuck taking care of raging fathers; and, o yea, the sins of those fathers, again and again, amen.  And yet there is no drunkard in this play.  Irish playwrights have eased off of that one.  Still one might wish for a drunk, or someone unpredictable.  The cop’s daughters are straightforward people who enter rooms to deliver exposition and promptly leave.  Even the madman is predictable: mostly he’ll recline or sit and wax eloquent about the weather that occurred during various important events over the years: the morning fog, the snow underfoot, the light on the grass.  Every forty-five minutes, he’ll rage, but just a little.

Abby Wilde, Kalen Harriman, Brian Dennehy and Carmela Corbett in Sebastian Barry's THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM at the Mark Taper Forum.As the madman, Brian Dennehy has virtually nothing to do except speak.  Being a pro, he changes it up: he speaks into his hand, he speaks into his elbow, into a table, into blankets.  He speaks into other actors’ shoulders, heads.  He speaks upstage.  His performance seems to cost him something; there’s nothing easy about it; it’s work, deeply felt and hard to hear.  If his soliloquies grow a sameness about them, it’s not really his doing as much as the writer’s.  By giving us all the potentially revelatory information at the top, Mr. Barry ensures against second-act surprises.  He wants a tone poem rather than a potboiler.

Grant Palmer and Brian Dennehy in Sebastian Barry's THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM at the Mark Taper Forum.It’s an achievement that for all the carnage alluded to, in massacre after assassination after trench shelling, there is no sense of danger or threat.  The primary mood is languor.  What violence does happen onstage is completely unconvincing.  It’s partly the fault of a script that would rather talk about situations than show them, so that when action does land it lands awkwardly.  There’s also the fact that in maintaining all that evenness of tone, Steven Robman has missed the opportunity to inject much life into these moments.

Abby Wilde, Carmela Corbett and Kalen Harriman in Sebastian Barry's THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM at the Mark Taper Forum.In his defense, the script provides him few moments to direct.  The sisters’ time onstage might be called presentations rather than scenes.  Oddly, in the second act, elements of melodrama are introduced in declarative sentences (someone makes a promise she can’t keep; someone tries to thwart a romance), but the characters and especially circumstances are too thin to invest deeply in them.  The final father-daughter memory is a moment, but it’s flatly presented.  The fatal jeopardy here feels incongruous, unconvincing and nowhere near a big enough deal after all the build-up.

Mary-Pat Green and Brian Dennehy in Sebastian Barry's THE STEWARD OF CHRISTENDOM at the Mark Taper Forum.Mr. Robman’s work is more successful in the cohesive overall design.  Kevin Depinet’s set is boldly stylized and beautiful.  Cricket S. Myers’ sound and Robert Wirzel’s lighting are equally unsubtle and equally gorgeous.  At the unfortunate extreme of this literal league, Jason H. Thompson’s projection design comes close to disproving the axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words.  By projecting photos of exactly what’s in the protagonist’s head while the protagonist describes it, he and Mr. Robman at least prove that a thousand pictures and a thousand words simultaneously is too much of something.  At any rate, they leave the audience nothing to do except settle in.

Perhaps the Irish should put a moratorium on memory plays.  Maybe the racial affinity for mixing language and melancholy is too apt to run away with the show.  Granted, Krapp’s Last Tape is brief and to the point; but Beckett lived in France.

photos by Craig Schwartz

The Steward of Christendom
Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum
scheduled to end on January 5, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

{ 1 comment }

JM December 12, 2013 at 6:25 pm

55 minutes into the performance I saw (the full running time is close to 3 hours), Mr Dennehy was experiencing some sort of a buzzing noise which caused him to stop mid-phrase, apologize to the audience, get out of bed and exit the stage presenting the audience with a fortutitous opportunity to exit the theatre….which they did in droves…myself included. Perhaps the show got better as it continued but quite frankly I could have cared less. The script’s mind-numbing meanderings are unrelenting and ultimately sleep inducing. Mr Dennehy gave it his best shot but there was very little any actor or director could do to breathe any sense of life or urgency into the wordy ramblings of the playwright. Definitely one to skip.

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