The Arts
August 8-15, 2007

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'The Playboy of the Western World'

Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo
Riot Act: Kate Eastwood Norris (left) as the Widow Quinn, Cody Nickell as Christy Mahon and Genevieve Elam as Pegeen Mike in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2007 production of 'The Playboy of the Western World.'

The Perfect Playboy

Shakespeare Santa Cruz delivers a masterful version of J.M. Synge's poignant play

By Valerie Ross

Intelligent comedy combined with superb ensemble acting is all too rare in the theater these days. Thankfully, Shakespeare Santa Cruz provides an abundance of both in its current production of The Playboy of the Western World. A perfect complement to the festival's Shakespearean offerings this season, J.M. Synge's play presents many similar themes and moral questions involving parents and children, romance and passion, even murder and intrigue, in an alternatingly hilarious and poignant play.

Written a century ago and set in Ireland in the early 1900s, when "playboy" simply meant a gallant young man, The Playboy of the Western World presents a socially relevant and archetypal tale of the "uncanny guest." A dark, handsome, mysterious stranger (think Shane) comes into town and alters it irrevocably--while transforming himself in the process. Considered by many to be a revolutionary play that symbolically represents Irish resistance to British rule, Playboy is also the story of a remote village rocked by a sensational murder story and the charismatic presence of the alleged murderer himself.

Under the masterful direction of Robert Moss, the production is filled with enormous physical energy, a deep sense of authenticity and excitement. The actors throw themselves into their roles, rigorously embracing the rich musicality of the Irish dialect and the desperation of their characters. These villagers live stark lives of drudgery and isolation, relieved only by heavy drinking and dreams of better times. The source of the unfulfilled longings of the play's feisty heroine Pegeen Mike (played with flair and great strength by Genevieve Elam) is perfectly captured in Erik Flatmo's set design of the weatherbeaten interior of a thatched coastal cottage with its bare, stained floor strewn with straw.

Pegeen, who is faced with the threat of marriage to a quaking milquetoast of a suitor, Sean Keogh (portrayed with great comic skill by Mike Ryan), is quickly smitten with the young mysterious outlaw who comes to town, Christy Mahon (played by the exceptionally talented Cody Nickell). Christy soon discovers that the allure of his crime, combined with his dramatic storytelling skills, has the whole village in his thrall. The broad comedy that ensues as Christy revels in his newfound power as a man as various women compete for his favors is both delightful and fraught with larger questions of what it means to be a man. When a sensitive son kills his abusive father, does it make him a hero or a viable husband? In this play, the answer is "yes."

While the play seethes with the central conflict between Christy and his father Old Mahon (a powerful comic performance by Paul Whitworth), buoyed by delightful ensemble scenes of randy young women and drunken townsmen, the heart of the play belongs to Pegeen and her rival for Christy's affections, the Widow Quinn (played with grace and depth by the versatile Kate Eastwood Norris). The Widow Quinn has the same dreams as Pegeen: they are both stranded here, longing for a handsome stranger to rescue them from the dreary provinciality and loneliness of their lives. The two women negotiate the territory of Christy Mahon's allegiance in a fascinating dance of loyalty, manipulation and betrayal, and all three central characters grow in complexity throughout the play.

Without giving away the series of dramatic surprises and comic reversals that fuel the show's energy, it is important to note that this socially significant play holds up a valuable mirror to our own culture's lurid fascination with murder stories, our tendency to turn our criminals into celebrities and our often dysfunctional standards for what passes as masculinity or heroism today. The Playboy of the Western World is a play that keeps you laughing, but it also makes you think; and that's what great theater is supposed to do.

The Playboy of the Western World plays on the Mainstage at UCSC through Sept. 2. Tickets are $26-$40. (831.459.2159)

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