Friday, August 15, 2014

Bad Habit takes on Translations

Patrick Varner and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard communicate via body language in Translations.

Bad Habit Productions has a habit of producing eloquent versions of literate, large-ensemble plays from the British tradition, and their current production of Brian Friel's Translations (through this weekend at the BCA) proves no exception to the rule - although Friel is of course Irish, not British, a distinction very apropos to Translations itself.

For the author's popular 1980 melodrama explores a forgotten episode in Great Britain's long domination of the Emerald Isle: sandwiched in between the Rebellion of 1798 and the Great Famine of 1845, the crown launched a covert effort to erase Gaelic - and airbrush away much of Irish identity - by "officially" mapping the landscape, while anglicizing the country's many (and often competing) place-names in the process.  Thus "Baile Beag" (roughly, "Small Town," a common enough name for an Irish hamlet) became the blunter "Ballybeg," while pungent tongue-twisters like "Poll na gCaorach" (roughly "The Hole of Sheep") were boiled down to the likes of "Poolkerry."

Friel sets this tale of indirect but deliberate cultural oppression in a rural "hedge school" of one of Ireland's many "Ballybegs," and his appealing central trope is that while his Irish and British characters are both intelligible to us, they can't understand each other. And perhaps inevitably, he works in an added audience hook: one sensitive soldier sent to eradicate Gaelic quickly falls in love with its mysterious music - and with the local lass who speaks it, too.

Sometimes this subplot makes Translations seem like little more than Ryan's Daughter Revisited - but to be fair, the soapy touches in the text also make the historical questions more accessible to a general audience, and Friel's handling of much of his action is subtle and apt. Perhaps more importantly, the script brims with strong character sketches - and luckily Bad Habit has pulled together a top-notch non-Equity cast for this production, from which director M. Bevin O'Gara has drawn mostly detailed and affecting work.

The standouts are Patrick Varner's lyrically smitten soldier, Greg Maraio's cheerfully knockabout local lug, and Gabriel Graetz's romantically frustrated school teacher - but they're given more than solid support by Kevin Fennessey, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Bob Mussett, and Margaret Clark in a variety of smaller but sharply etched performances. Alas, two of the leads - Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Matthew Barrett - struck me as appealing young talents who hadn't yet sounded the deeper dimensions of their characters; and another major role had just been re-cast with an actor who understandably wasn't quite up to full speed.  Even with these minor gaps, however, the Bad Habit ensemble once again impressed.

And O'Gara once more proved herself a superb director of individual actors, although she seemed to miss some of the larger challenges of this particular text. There was little sense of the unspoken, resentful threat that should move in the background of Friel's mise-en-scène, for instance - nor did the production manage to convey the playwright's suggestion that the incidents of his play had set off a gathering historical storm (it relied on literal rumbles of thunder instead). To be honest, these aren't minor points - but many of the performances on display here are charming enough that you'll find yourself tempted to forget them.

Friel's "hedge school" of 1833. Photos: Paul Cantillon.

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