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July 15, 2004

A rare glimpse of Yeats

by Christopher Rawson

Lost plays have an undoubted fascination, like "Cardenio" by Shakespeare or many by the ancient Greek masters.

But plays can also be "lost" in full sight, which has befallen the five Cuchulain plays of W.B. Yeats. There they are, but we don't see them performed. You'd expect every scrap by the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Irish nationalist and pioneer dramatist to be savored, but these plays have been honored mainly on the page.

Pittsburgh will get a rare look at them, this weekend and next, staged as a single five-act play by the ad hoc Kells Theatre at the Irish Centre in Squirrel Hill.

That this is so rare is particularly odd because the plays are central to Yeats' great project, expressed in his long labors on behalf of the Abbey Theatre, to return serious theatre to the center of Irish culture and civic life. The first, "On Baile's Strand," can be said to have helped jump start the Irish literary renaissance, leading to the glories of modern Irish playwrighting from O'Casey to Friel to McPherson.

An important element in Yeats' project was to revive the matter of Cuchulain, the great hero of myth and legend. The five one-act plays were written over the full span of Yeats' theatrical career, so they are a skeleton key to his dramatic enthusiasms. One is poetic myth, another farce, a third borrows from Japanese Noh, and so on.

This huge difference among the plays was one of the chief challenges facing Kelly Colleen McMahon, whose project this it. So she decided "to embrace the difference" by enlisting different directors to help.

McMahon has long been interested in the legend of Cuchulain. Her interest in things Irish was further developed by assistant directing last year for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, first "Hamlet" and then "Major Barbara," which she accompanied when it toured to Ireland for a month last summer.

McMahon first tackled Yeats in a graduate directing class at Pitt under Melanie Dreyer. For her project she staged "On Baile's Strand," the poetic Cuchulain play, in the Irish Nationality Room. That's just a tiny medieval monk's cell, but she squeezed 20 people in to see it, and the positive response determined her to "do it for real" along with the other four.

She has found Jim Graven of the Irish Centre very accommodating. "It's not a stage," she says of the space more usually used for wedding receptions and such, "but we've tried to embrace that, too." The Centre's other uses necessitate a 5 p.m. curtain on Saturdays.

"At the Hawk's Well," with its Noh conventions, is directed by Michael Cassidy; "The Green Helmet," with parallels to the Sir Gawain sotry, by Lofty Durham; and "The Only Jealousy of Emer," including dance and chorus, by Jeff Cordell. McMahon herself directs "On Baile's Strand" and "The Death of Cuchulain," written in 1939, when Yeats could anticipate his own heroic death.

Corey Rieger plays Cuchulain all the way through. Among the other 19 actors involved is Mark Thompson as King Conchubar. The five plays run 20 to 30 minutes each, resulting in a program under 2 1/2 hours.