No need to riot. The Playboy of the Western World is offering a lovely opening to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s season.
Famous for its inauspicious Dublin opening, J.M. Synge’s 1907 comedy incited a chorus of hisses and angry riots from a scandalized Irish public upon its premiere. “This is not Irish life!” they cried in response to Synge’s poteen-drinking peasants who casually toss around sexual innuendo and revel in scandal. The characters were dubbed blackguards and their creator an evil genius. Neither was a compliment.
The dustup may seem silly now, as Playboy appears much more like a charming idyll than the stuff of controversy, but the play’s historical baggage is a helpful reminder of the subversion lying under its surface.
Set in the barroom of a county pub run by young Pegeen Mike (Izzie Steele) and her father (Matt Sullivan) in rural County Mayo, the play focusses on the controversy that arises when an out-of-towner with a nefarious past arrives and disrupts the mundaneness of local life. The Playboy of the title is Christie Mahon (Michael A. Newcomer), who we first hear about as a stranger lying in a roadside ditch during the dead of a cold and windy night. He is on the run from home after killing his father during an argument and has eluded the authorities on his way to this rural pub.
Discovered by Shawn Keogh, a young local whose piety is a strong as his courage is weak, Christie shows up to Pegeen’s pub tired and disheveled, looking for some warmth and shelter. It does not take long before the curious locals coerce him to disclose the conditions of his fugitive flight, but Christie is astonished to find that they neither turn him in nor run him off. Instead they marvel at his courage and welcome him as one of their own.
As Christie’s stay at Pegeen’s pub continues he becomes more and more of an object of local fascination, as the men respect his valor and the women titter at the opportunity to meet the handsome and dangerous stranger. The only dissenter is Shawn Keogh, who is betrothed to Pegeen and worries—legitimately—that the charms of the stranger will woo her away. Keogh’s attempt to bribe Christie for his departure fails, and the stranger evolves from a meek wanderer to a boisterous and confident playboy. Tension arises as details of Christie’s past become clearer and threaten to knock him from his pedestal, but Christie rides the tide as high as it will take him.
Under the direction of Paul Mullins, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Playboy captures all the play’s charm and comedy. James Russell is consistently a comic highpoint as the mousey Keogh, regularly teased by both Pegeen and her father, and constantly on edge around the nefarious stranger. As the romance between Pegeen and Christie develops, Russell succeeds at all points in making clear that Pegeen’s attraction to the rugged stranger is only enhanced by the other option’s being the meek local. Keogh is precisely the sort of characterization that maddened Playboy’s detractors: a well-mannered peasant farmer seemingly mocked and derided by Synge. Those detractors may very well have had a point, but Russell embraces Synge’s mockery deftly, finding all of its comic potential.
Playboy’s opponents might also have been miffed by the fiery Pegeen, who runs her father’s pub and whose eye wanders away from the nice farm boy to the blackguard murderer, and by the Widow Quinn, who is not shy with sexual innuendos, but like Russell, neither Izzie Steele as Pegeen nor Emma O’Donnell as the Widow Quinn hesitate to give full breath to Synge’s characters.
Synge’s favorite setting is the rural west of Ireland, a place where he found the roots of a dialect he made his own playwriting voice. Melodious and poetic though the language of Playboy may be, it is not always the easiest to decipher for any audience. Dialect coupled with thick accents makes for the occasional confusing or missed meaning throughout the evening, but Mullins and the performers have managed to find clarity for the most part. Even when the language is occasionally alienating, the effect is a compelling sense of foreignness, as if we are voyeurs on a culture that we are not able to understand fully.
The Playboy rioters wanted a play that portrayed their own idealized vision of their lives. Instead, they got a much more insightful characterization of people with all their foibles and weaknesses. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has embraced Synge’s vision fully, and kicked off its season in fine style by locating the beauty of Playboy without losing sight of its subversion.