Much like the legendary hero of W.B. Yeats' Cuchulain Cycle, new director Kelly Colleen McMahon seems to enjoy taking risks. McMahon is the force behind the Kells Theatre's production of five short Yeats plays, each of which deals with an episode in the life of Cuchulain, a sort of Celtic Hercules or Beowulf.
Yeats, better known for his Nobel Prize-winning poetry, wrote these plays in different, experimental styles over 30 years. As a result, the Cuchulain plays are still intimidating enough to directors and audiences that they are rarely staged individually, let alone together.
But McMahon, along with directors Michael Cassidy, Loft Durham, and Jeffrey Cordell, has tried to rise to these challenges by using a variety of theatrical techniques. As with all risks, only some pay off; the five plays all register, but in varying degrees.
Yeats wrote "At the Hawk's Well" (1916) using the conventions of Japanese Noh drama, and like the other four plays, it owes much to Greek tragedy. A singing chorus (David Jortner, Betse Lyons and Sean Gray) supplies setting and commentary. With his experience in movement theatre, Mark Thompson's Old Man is beautiful to watch, but even the long-awaited entrance of Cuchulain (Corey Rieger) doesn't generate dramatic tension. Noh is very stylized, but it should reach emotional heights; director Cassidy's glacial pace ensures "Hawk's Well" never quite gets airborne.
Durham directs "The Green Helmet" (1909) for laughs. Cuchulain plays straight man to his friends Laegaire and Conall (Devin E. Malcolm and Ben Blazer) while facing off against the mysterious Red Man (Matthew J. Kopans).
But it is not until the third piece "On Baile's Strand) (co-authored by Lady Gregory, 1903), that the dramatic potential of the legends and Yeats' poetic language become clear. A Blind Man (Thompson) and a Food (Vito Ferraro) watch as King Conchubar (Thompson) orders Cuchulain to challenge a young foreigner (Ferraro) in battle. The outcome is as wrenching and inevitable as any in Greek tragedy, and McMahon's clear direction ensures its impact.
The intensity reaches its height in "The Only Jealousy of Emer" (1916), directed by Cordell. Cuchulain has fallen ill and only the woman he loves can save him. But will it be his wife, faithful Emer (Kimberly Downes) or his mistress, Eithne (Susaan Jamshidi)? A doubled chorus whose sides echo each other works beautifully to illuminate the struggle.
In the final piece, "The Death of Cuchulain" (from the year of Yeats' own death, 1939), director McMahon also uses unusual techniques, but less effectively. While a masked Cuchulain stands bound to a rock, a figure identified as "the Mortal Women" (choreographer Maria Caruso) dances around him. A voice-over supplies explanations for what is happening, but the effect is less enigmatic than confusing.
However, the talent of the actors who play recurring characters - Rieger as Cuchulain, Thompson and both the Blind Man and Conchubar, and Downes as Emer - helps to integrate the five pieces. Rieger is especially notable, both consistent and flexible in the face of each play's requirements; his Cuchulain manages to be reassuringly human as well as a bit otherworldly. Thompson lends a King Lear-like gravity to his parts, and Downes plays Emer as a tigress whose snarl hides her abiding sorrow.
"The Cuchulain Cycle" is mythic theatre that, at its best, offers moments when symbol and emotion come together in a way that is undeniably powerful. Overall, I'd say those moments make all the risks worthwhile.