I got to take a trip to Ireland on Wednesday night. I highly recommend you make the same journey, too. (You have just three more chances: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 7-9.)
With its new production of “The Playboy of the Western World,” Fresno State’s theater department offers a rousing and deft version of the classic comedy by John Millington Synge. First performed in 1907, this production — set in a ramshackle tavern on the rural western coast of Ireland — boasts an eye- and ear-popping sense of place. Blustery good acting, a tight ensemble, strong production design, impeccable comic timing and Brad Myers’ smoothly impeccable direction make this an outstanding collegiate production.
The comic possibilities of “Playboy” can be taken in different directions. This tale of the iconic character Christy Mahon (a sturdy and charismatic Joel Young) can be played for big, broad laughs from the start. And, needless to say, it can be overacted from the start as well. Myers has far too experienced a grip on the title for that. He builds the play’s comic arc in a way that keeps the laughs coming but doesn’t peak too soon. Synge’s final scene is simply hilarious.
When the bedraggled Christy shows up at Michael James Flaherty’s Tavern, he’s a bit of a wreck, which will change soon. (It’s fun to watch Young’s transformation from rural ragamuffin to cocky golden boy.) When Christy lets slip that he killed his father in an argument, his stock among the bar’s regulars rises appreciably.
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Among them is Pegeen Mike Flaherty (a nuanced and effective Amanda Valdez), whose nearly arranged marriage to the wealthy but boring Shawn Keogh (Dillon Morgan, in one of my favorite performances from him), leaves her about as enthused as scrubbing the tavern’s floors.
Who will win her heart: the rakish newcomer or the solid citizen?
You might need time to adjust to the lusciously thick Irish accents in the production. (Myers is a dialect expert.) But don’t worry if you can’t catch every word. One of the things that struck me most about this “Playboy” is that it almost feels like a musical. You might not understand all the “lyrics,” but from the context, it’s easy to figure out what’s going on.
Even the volume of the play has a musical quality: periodic bursts of laughter, frenzied chatter and general Irish hoopla are suddenly silenced by a slam of a door, say, or a fratricidal revelation. The effect is powerful, like that of fortissimo vs. pianissimo in a musical composition.
There are many fine performances, including a boisterous Eric Estep as the tavern owner, Mitchell Lam Hau and Kai di Mino as boorish brothers, Kindle Cowger as a saucy young lass and Henry Montelongo as the rag-tag mystery man who shows up to wreak havoc.
Morgan, in turn funny, yelpy and persnickety, is first-rate. And in a laugh-out-loud performance, Kia Vassiliades shows us finely honed comic chops as the Widow Quin, whose randy attention toward the handsome Christy adds another dimension to the play’s love triangle.
I found myself reveling in the details of this production: the way the Widow Quin hoists a dirty (yet sassy) bare leg on a tavern bench as she interacts with the newcomer. The holes in Christy’s socks (Kelly Pantzlaff-Curry’s distressed, stained costumes are a treat). The whistling Irish wind (ditto for Kyle Jensen’s strong sound design). The warmth of a sunny afternoon inside the bar (thanks to Marc Petros’ lighting design).
The comfy, detail-oriented set by Margaret Srmayan, with a few rafters offering a sense of enclosure, captures the wide-open roughness of the Irish countryside.
Most of all, the direction in this production is time and again a treat. The blocking is subtle choreography. One small moment sticks in my mind: Early on, soon after we meet the subdued Christy, he’s huddled on a stool in front of the fire. The rest of the people in the bar, intensely curious, position themselves into a wedgelike formation suggesting a team of interrogators. But it’s so natural, so unchoreographed, if you will, that the moment gels with an easy elegance.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find it difficult to fall into the effortless ambiance that this production of “Playboy” offers. When this good ol’ Irish tale comes to an end, as it must, I was a little sorry to be back home from Ireland.