by W.B. Yeats
Dumb Prophet Equity Co-op
Pacific Theatre (1440 West 12th Ave.)
January 14-29

Almost exactly 100 years ago W.B. Yeats co-founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and helped revolutionize modern theatrical practice. Ireland’s Abbey quickly became the paradigm for alternative, avant garde, non-commercial theatre in North America, inspiring the Little Theatre movement in the United States and Canada, giving rise to Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell’s Provincetown Players, Toronto’s Hart House, the UBC Players Club and other such foundational institutions. The Abbey was even more important for Canada, serving as a model for the way a small country, dominated by its great-power, English-speaking neighbour, could create a national theatre of its own, and an indigenous dramatic literature. For the first few decades of the century Yeats’ own plays appeared more regularly than those of almost any other playwright, in every season of every little theatre in Canada.

The attraction of Yeats’ drama lay in its exoticism and overtly non-commercial nature. Yeats was a poet, heavily immersed in symbolism and the occult as well as Irish mythology and nationalism. A confirmed modernist and aesthete, he loathed realism: “Art is art because it is not nature,” he echoed Oscar Wilde. His plays are versified, ritualistic and heavily stylized. He used masks, music and song, borrowing heavily from the Japanese Noh theatre and the non-realistic design philosophy preached by Gordon Craig to strip the stage nearly bare so as to emphasize the spoken and chanted word. His was a theatre not even remotely concerned with putting bums in seats. In fact Yeats claimed he desired “an unpopular theatre and an audience like a secret society.”

Well, tastes change, and arcane, anti-populist theatre for coterie audiences is, to say the least, a hard sell these days. Yeats’ plays are rarely performed anymore, though his reputation as perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century remains intact. So director Anthony Ingram and his co-op company deserve much credit for this adventurous foray into Yeats’ world. They present three one-acts: “At the Hawk’s Well,” a Noh-style verse drama about an old man and a young warrior trying to drink the waters of immortality from a well guarded by a female spirit in the shape of a hawk; “The Cat and the Moon,” a comic playlet in prose about a blind man and a lame man given a choice of either having their infirmities healed or living forever among the blessed; and “Purgatory,” a grim little oedipal verse play about father-son murder and a house full of ghosts. Donnard Mackenzie and Kyle Rideout are the two men in each play. Valerie Sing Turner plays flute, Varya Rubin violin and Bill Moysey percussion (mainly an Irish drum and Oriental gong), and all three sing, chant, and step into smaller roles.

The best things about the evening are the interesting musical effects and some striking visual images. The set design by Ingram, a platform covered with sand, with a dead tree at one end and the suggestion of a stone well at the other, resembles a Zen garden. When the musicians ritually unfold a large red cloth across its starkness, it creates the kind of vivid, non-rational moment that Yeats aspired to. The same when Rubin assumes the costume of the hawk-woman with ribboned wings and a half-mask headpiece and swoops across the stage—an effect all the more powerful due to her resemblance to the Thunderbird in Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) First Nation rituals. At times the interaction between the characters was dynamic, particularly in “The Cat and the Moon,” when the blind man (Mackenzie) carries the cripple (Rideout) on his back, and when the latter learns that he can walk due to the intercession of the saint (Turner). But too often the dialogue cramps the plays’ visual and aural style. Sometimes the verse narratives are difficult to understand, or, in “At the Hawk’s Well,” Mackenzie’s methodical (pause) presentation (pause) of the verse (pause) drains the stage of dramatic tension, or, in “Purgatory,” the characters’ motivations just aren’t clear.

I’m glad I had a chance to see these plays. But unless the kind of stage magic that this production attains only sporadically can be sustained for a whole evening, they are going to remain of interest mostly to academics and theatre historians.

Jerry Wasserman


last updated: Saturday, January 15, 2005 7:16 PM
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