The lyric poetry of William Yeats presents insurmountable problems to the actor who has not been nurtured on the delicate shadings of verse drama. Faced with elusive changes in meter and rhythm and the even more perplexing mysticism of the Irish folk talc, players often slip into over-emphasis that destroys the delicate blending of intensity and subtlety intended by Yeats.
That the Poets' Theater does not master this difficulty in its production of Purgatory and The Player Queen is no discredit. Both plays are well staged, and the innate beauty of the pieces themselves make the venture worthwhile.
Purgatory is a dialogue between an illegitimate son and his insane father who finally kills the boy to keep him from reliving his own life of lust and murder. In portraying the "fat, greasy life." of which Yeats wrote, Michael Laurence and Ralph Russell act with unvarying intensity, robbing the short play of much of its potential impact. Every line is grossly shouted; there is no shading. As the father, Laurence is too noble--Yeats was not trying to write a tragedy of a noble man fallen, but a picture of a man groveling and depraved, even during his brief flashes of insight into the hopeless nature of his life. And Russell as the son is too wide-eyed, too earnest.
As played by the Poet's group, Purgatory is static and lacks the contrasts it should have. It seems two-dimensional beside the rich, flowing whimsy of The Player Queen. Given the role of Septimns, a drunken poet, Russell more than acquits himself in the evening's second play. His eulogy of the chaste unicorn is particularly charming. The most skillful performance of the evening is Bronias Sielewicz' Decima, the actress who becomes queen when the real queen flees an attacking mob. Graceful in her movements, she is alternately coy and contemptuous as the part demands.
Her subtlety is effectively matched by the clowning of Edward Thommen in the role of the prime minister. A host of other players are impressive in the lesser roles--Richard Eder as the beggar, Matilda Hills as the hypocritical queen, Leslie Cass as the scheming Nona, and many, many more.
But the large cast is unwieldy, and Director Martha Farrar has obvious difficulty in keeping the stage from looking cluttered. The dances, which could add much to the quick pace of the play, are unimaginative and drawn out.
Catherine Luce's set, with its tiny buildings, evokes the elfish, mystic atmosphere intended by Yeats. The bare stones and columns of the Fogg museum Court form a stage that is ideal in effect, if not in flexibility And in Purgatory, the starkness of a single block of stone in the center of the dimly lit stage is appropriately forbidding.