- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — Nine hours is a long time to sit still for anything, but the creators of “DruidSynge” energetically cram enough murders, betrayals, unfortunate accidents, beatings, drunken brawls, raging thunderstorms and other assorted bad luck and mayhem into this theatrical marathon to capture all but the shortest attention spans.

“DruidSynge,” a staging of the entire body of work of Irish playwright John Millington Synge, made its North American debut in late June in the new Guthrie Theater on the banks of the Mississippi River. Beginning Monday, it will be presented at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival for a two-week run.

“To be able to see the entire cycle of a playwright’s work, from the first play they wrote to the last ? that’s a special thing,” says Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director. “I think for anyone who’s interested in theater at all, this is a unique opportunity.”

The production is the work of the Druid Theatre Company of Galway, Ireland, which first staged it at the Galway Arts Festival in July 2005. It played to rapturous reviews in Dublin, Ireland, and Edinburgh, Scotland, and Mr. Dowling — an Irishman himself — said he jumped at the chance for a brief Minnesota engagement when he heard it would play at Lincoln Center this summer.

Synge, who died of Hodgkin’s disease at age 37 in 1909, is not well-known to American audiences, though many may be familiar with his best-known work, “The Playboy of the Western World.” However, along with W.B. Yeats, he was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, which helped the country establish an artistic identity distinct from England.

His bleak, at times darkly comic tales of the downtrodden working class are seen as an important influence on such successors as Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett.

Synge’s work was viewed as revolutionary in its time, so much so that “Playboy” sparked riots when it premiered in Dublin in 1907. Irish audiences apparently found much to revile in the tale of Irish villagers who revere a young man after he claims —falsely, as it turns out — that he killed his own father.

“There was a prevailing conservatism at that time, and there would have been objections to what he was portraying at a time when Irish culture was very conscious about putting its best foot forward,” says Garry Hynes, the Tony-winning director of “DruidSynge” and a co-founder of the Druid Theatre Company. “There would have been an element that would have objected to seeing Irish peasants falling in love with a parasite.”

“Playboy,” the penultimate staging in the nearly nine-hour cycle, is almost certainly the highlight of the production, but each of the plays has its own rewards — from the grim tragedy of “Riders to the Sea” to the bawdy farce of “The Tinker’s Wedding.”

Unsurprisingly — we are talking about the Irish, after all — the emotions often come with a capital E, at times swinging from broad comedy to bitter tragedy in the space of minutes. In “The Well of the Saints,” an elderly blind couple rejoice at regaining their sight, only to be repulsed at the sight of each other. In “The Shadow of the Glen,” a young woman ostentatiously grieves for her late husband but runs off with a young suitor when it turns out the old man isn’t as dead as she thought.

Authority figures, particularly men of God, are heaped with scorn. In “The Tinker’s Wedding,” a buffoonish priest is tied up in a sack and beaten with sticks. In the aforementioned “Saints,” the saint who restores the blind couple’s sight is arrogant and capricious.

Looming above the specific set pieces is the sheer impressiveness of the production’s length. Though there are several short intermissions and a 90-minute break before “Playboy,” it’s still difficult to not feel exhausted by the time the cycle wraps up with the melodramatic “Deirdre of the Sorrows” ? Synge’s final, unfinished work.

You can’t help but be wowed by the actors, most of whom play multiple roles. One actress, Tony winner Marie Mullen, plays a lead part in five of the six plays.

“They really have to pace themselves and be careful,” says Felicity O’Brien, the cycle’s producer, “but at the same time, it’s an amazing challenge for any actor.”

For American audiences, possibly even more challenging than the running time is the thick brogue of the Irish actors, making the dialogue at times hard to follow. On the night of the first Guthrie staging, more than one theatergoer could be heard grumbling in the lobby about the difficulty of understanding the actors.

Still, Mr. Dowling says close attention — and a little patience — pay great rewards.

“Exotic language aside, when you boil it down, it’s dealing with the basic human emotions of love and hate,” he says. “To be able to sit there and watch the progress of a writer — it’s a fascinating thing.”

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