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Agony and Ecstasy on the Mainstage

Richard's Cork Leg By Brendan Behan Play By Samuel Beckett Directed by Daniel McGrath At the Loeb Mainstage Nov. 14-16

By T.m. Doyle

IN THE PAST few years, Harvard's Mainstage has acquired a reputation for seriously strange and bizarre theater: from Paul Warner's Rocky Horroresque stylistics to Kevin Jennings' psychedelically lit social messages, the Mainstage and the HRDC have self-marginalized themselves with a Spartacist zeal. In a recent effort to make the Mainstage more accessible as well as more profitable, Shakespeare and Bernstein have replaced Aeschylus in drag.

Enter Mr. McGrath, with his production of Richard's Cork Leg, a bawdy, bizarre drama of Irish humor and politics. Richard's Leg should have been the foot in the door for a mass audience at the Loeb. To some extent it succeeds, but like a badly coached team, Leg trips over the basics.

The first misstep was choosing Beckett's Play as a filler piece. Richard's Cork Leg is a short play, but a more conventional stopgap than Beckett's artificial attachment might have been found for the Mainstage. Play uses a mere 10 square feet of the vast stage for 30 minutes. During this time, the only action is the motion of a followspot which reveals three actors mysteriously entombed in urns. For no apparent reason, they address the light as if it were in the process of tormenting them. Although the scenario is funny and somewhat chilling the first time through, our interest soon truns to boredom as the dialogue is replayed, for we have finally understood that this is nothing more than a bad version of Jean-Paul Satre's No Exit. This kind of theater belongs in the Experimental Theater at the Loeb. On the Mainstage, it is a waste of time and space, not to mention the otherwise effective voices of the entombed.

It is therefore understandable why the lead actor from Richard's Cork Leg lurks outside the theater trying to cajole us into remaining seated through the agonizing performance of Play. Charles Puckette sits and smokes his cigarette, then as the lights dim he sings a song and invites us to sit awhile before he comes on. The fact that he commits numerous theatric no-no's, like talking to the other performers as they wait in the pit, is easily overlooked by the needed hints that he provides of things to come.

If one does succeed in making it through Play (and not everyone does), the first act of Richard's Cork Leg is a real treat. The urns from Play are transformed into an old Irish cemetery, soon to be peopled by a very talented group of actors. In the lead role of Cronin, Charles Puckette steals the show, mellowing his character's crass politics and sexuality with a devil-may-care Irish charm. Laura Gonzales, who plays the prostitute Rose of Lima, sings and moves with the sensuality of an Irish Kate Bush. And the song and dance team of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Patrick Bradford) and his singing corpse (Jeffrey Korn) are an absolute triumph of macabre hilarity.

Sex and death are the targets of fun amidst a background of polarized Irish politics. As a phallic tombstone rises backstage, the two prostitutes (Gonzales and Lisa Peers) mourn the murder of one of their more active comrades. Cronin's attempt to seduce a young lady (Catherine Harris) in the cemetery becomes a bizarre waltz of carpe diem, pitting his hedonistic wit against the all-too-serious violent intentions of his fellows. By intermission, the audience is hooked by the bizarre humor and intriguing scenarios of the first act.

Early into the second act, however, things begin to fall apart. The well-designed graveyard is reduced to a mess of living room furnishings that seem to confuse the actors as much they do the audience. The added musical numbers formed than those in the first act. Blocking and movement are likewise confused, sloppily ad-libbed, and uncertain. It would thus appear that author Brendan Behan died at some point midway through the second act, leaving an outsider to piece together the remainder of his play from a largely illegible collection of notes.

Any good Irish Catholic knows the Seven Deadly Sins, and any good theatrical producer should have recognized their dramatic counterparts as evidenced in this production. To list a few:

Inconsistent accents are a regular failure in Harvard productions, and Richard's Cork Leg is no exception. Why, for example, is Play performed with a British accent, making it more dry and boring than it is already? And what accent is Hero Hogan (Pauls Raudseps) really suppose to have? Is it Russian, or Irish, or (more likely) some unheard-of combination of both

Lighting was generally botched on the reviewed night. The followspot was hopelessly out of sync (i.e. under rehearsed?) during Play. And, among other design gaffes, the background effects during Leg that were allegedly supposed to resemble sunrise were shamefully misprogrammed and were used in the wrong color combinations. In the larger context of a botched second act set, the lighting errors provide us with sufficient evidence to soundly condemn the work of Richard Rutkowski, despite his fine first act set concept.

Much of the blocking seemed excessive even for comedy. Why did Cronin's wife shuffle so strangely, even if she was pregnant? And why did Catherine Harris, who was doing prudery quite well, have to march ten feet and deliver the same Victorian brush-off every time an advance was made to her? The slapstick trip-ups between Cronin and Hogan looked under-rehearsed. In fact, most of the movements in Act 2 looked unrehearsed.

And slapstick movements aren't the only inexplicable sight gags. The matter of a male (Alexander Roe) in the female role of Mrs. Mallarkey is more than just sexually dubious. It doesn't detract from the production, but it doesn't seem to add anything either. We've all seen this trick too many times at the Pudding to be amused merely by sexual ambiguity.

These errors and the near total collapse of the second act must be laid at the feet of the director. While the production will certainly appear to be better integrated this weekend after one round of performances, the curtain should have never gone up without these gaffes having been forcibly expurgated.

Some of these criticisms may seem petty, but in sum, they create a clear picture of a production with a fair script and great actors that somehow comes out looking very amateurish. The oft pretentious HRDC mainstage shows are indeed put on by college students, but they usually achieve professional quality, even brilliance at times. They have in the past at least shown themselves capable of avoiding the high school style mistakes that haunt this production.

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