Villanova University’s highly respected Theatre Department is beginning an exchange program with Ireland’s celebrated Abbey Theatre; the two institutions will be working together to further enrich their artistic and intellectual traditions. Students from Villanova will be afforded the opportunity to study with the Abbey in Dublin and artists from there will spend time at the University. There will be lectures, workshops and community conversations as the University offers a “home away from home” for the Abbey. The inaugural event in this exchange is the Theatre’s production of Marina Carr’s WOMAN AND SCARECROW, onstage at Vasey Hall November 8th thru the 20th.
Death—and dying; the Irish (and I am one) seem to be obsessed with this topic. Don’t know why this is, but it is a subject oft explored in the theatre of my heritage. Ms. Carr’s 2006 play is no exception. Granted, death is unavoidable—it’s going to happen to all of us, there’s not much we can do about it. And yet, my people manage to find the humor in this matter—albeit, dark humor, but humor nonetheless. (My family certainly has—it’s what has gotten us through many difficult times). I guess that’s what surprises so many people: that you find yourself laughing as you watch this compelling—and “painterly”—piece of theatre.
Of course, you also find yourself thinking a lot, too…
In an interview from 2001, Ms. Carr is quoted as saying “The fact that we are dying probably is the only significant thing for all of us. And how we live, and how we die. I think that is so important—how one dies… It is the only significant thing about us—that we are going to die, and that we get it so wrong.” WOMAN AND SCARECROW is Ms. Carr’s attempt to force us all to think about things we don’t really want to: Do we want to know if we are dying? Will we be brave as our life seeps out of us? Will we be honest? Will we have a chance to say all the things we were afraid to tell the ones we love?
In the play, which is influenced by the works of Beckett, Yeats and Shakespeare, we are in the bedroom of a woman who is in the last moments of her life. Her age is unclear, but it is evident that she will be leaving too soon. Her illness is never specified, yet her physical suffering is clear. As she looks back on the events of her life, you learn of her regrets and see her fear of what will become of her eight children, who will be left in the care of their detached and philandering father.
There the connection to reality ends; for present throughout most of the two acts is the figure of the Scarecrow—a representation of a Gaelic mythological figure, The Morrígan. In Irish legend, the scarecrow is a powerful figure; birds are associated with prophecy and serve as messengers from the immortal world. The viewer is left to wonder is this enigmatic figure a drug-induced figment of the Woman’s imagination or her guardian angel there to protect her to the end.
Felicia Leicht gives a riveting performance as “Woman”, running a gamut of emotions: remorse, longing, love, bitterness… She plays the gallows humor of the character perfectly (at one point Woman looks at her wasted away appearance in a hand mirror and reacts with joy at her “graveyard chic”). Ms. Leicht has a remarkable command of the material; I wasn’t sure if a college student would have that well of life experience to draw upon that would help convey the characters mindset. Ms. Leicht grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go.
Jessica O’Brien matches her as “Scarecrow”, alternating between oddly comforting friend and cruel prosecutor. Her movement throughout was fascinating to watch as well—conveying both that of a bird and a lyricism and grace. Woman has had little if any happiness in her brief life—a fact that Scarecrow takes great pains to drive home. Any time Woman wants to romanticize anything, O’Brien’s character is there to force her to face the truth about her loveless life. These two young actresses take the viewer on a roller coaster ride—with as many twists and turns.
Lizzy Dalton-Negron appears as the woman’s stern and very judgmental Auntie Ah. To me, the character represents the moral rigidity of the Catholic Church. She raised the woman after her own mother’s early death; one imagines how cold and immovable she was to this lost little girl. Ms. Dalton-Negron conveys that detached unthinking acceptance and regurgitation of Church dogma quite well. My only question was why she was the only cast member with a hint of an Irish accent. The other three performers don’t affect a brogue and it isn’t really needed as the story is so universal.
Ahren Potratz has the most thankless role of the play: Woman’s philandering husband. It is very telling that the script refers to the character as “Him”. Mr. Potratz portrays a man who is annoyed that the woman he impregnated 8 times is taking so long to die—and keeping him from his latest mistress. It must be very difficult as an actor to go to that place emotionally. Yet Mr. Potratz gives a full-bodied performance, with a couple of momentary glimpses of the gentle part that attracted Woman in the first place. The fact that they spend so little of the time left attempting to come to terms with their situation was very disturbing to me, though, I must admit. But, then, I have a lot of personal baggage in that area…
Director Fr. David Cregan (a former actor himself) has staged this play beautifully, eliciting wonderfully calibrated performances in this nicely paced production. It is clear that much background work was done to assist this young cast in mining the depths of this material. He is supported magnificently by the design work. Scenic designer Vandy Scoates has created a simple yet evocative playing space in the Vasey’s very deep thrust. From the faded wood planking of the raked floor to the over-large armoire upstage, one is given the feeling of an old Irish “council house”. The large bed of entwined branches adds the element of other worldliness. Jerrold Forsyth’s lighting enhances this effect perfectly. There is some marvelous light projections and shadow play on the upstage wall throughout the piece. Parris Bradley’s sound design includes powerful versions of the music of Dvorak and Demis Roussos that the playwright references in her script. Costumer Valerie Cavooris beautifully blends the look of practical Irish wear with Scarecrow’s esoteric ensemble that references the designs of the late Alexander McQueen. Other influences that emerge in the team’s work include Salvador Dali, Dorothea Tanning and Ron Mueck.
This play is a challenging evening of theatre for both the performers and the viewer—it does not give easy answers. Yet there is tremendous humor in Ms. Carr’s dialogue; it is sharp and witty as it takes the audience on a most intriguing journey. It was one I found most enjoyable.
WOMAN AND SCARECROW
by Marina Carr
Directed by Rev. David Cregan, O.S.A.
November 8-20, 2011
Villanova Theatre-Vasey Hall
Lancaster & Ithan Avenues