Friday, April 13, 2018

A Cart Without a Horse: Studio Theatre's Translations

Studio Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s Translations proves difficult to map out. By the time the second half gets its footing and ratchets up the tension and dramatic intrigue, the show is already out to pasture. The blame here lies primarily with Matt Torney, whose direction upends a worthwhile effort from his team.

Translations tells the story of a hedge school in the townland of Baile Baeg, an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal in 1833. Owen, the son of perpetually buzzed schoolmaster Hugh, returns after six years away with members of the British Army to create a map that replaces the native Gaelic town names with English ones. Miscommunication over language, the power of the unspoken, and tensions between England and Ireland threaten to rip the community apart as the political becomes personal. The script conjures images of contemporary issues such as xenophobia, erosion of national identity, and cultural imperialism. Friel’s script has all of the actors speaking in English, but we are supposed to understand that they are actually speaking two different languages: Gaelic for the villagers and English for the Brits. This elegant solution to a complicated problem takes far too long to settle in and work under Torney’s direction. The effect becomes inscrutable, further muddying already choppy waters.

Let me preface this by saying that Friel’s script possesses a maudlin pace. Even so, Torney's direction does nothing to help the audience stay engaged. Torney fails his actors by not giving them any method to add any tension until after the act break, and his placement of actors appears more arbitrary than functional.

Despite Torney’s lackluster direction, the performances and dialect work from the cast are pleasant across the board with a few notable standouts. At times stoic alternating with genuine affection, Matthew Aldwin McGee charms with his dedication to his friends, family, and students in his role of Manus. His patience while teaching a student to introduce herself endears us to him. Joe Mallon and Caroline Dubberly as Doalty and Bridget provide a much-needed breath of fresh air and jolt of energy in a plodding first act. Bridget and Doalty have plenty of gossip to spread, and you can virtually see them licking their chops waiting for their turn to jump into the fray. In a play so dependent on language for both plot and theme, it is ironic that the strongest performance of the night comes from the actor with the least to say. Megan Graves pours every ounce of her soul into the broken psyche of near-mute student Sarah; although she only speaks a handful of words, the determination she exhibits while struggling with learning to speak inspires. Watching her operate is worth the price of admission.

The design team mostly does its part to give the show a fair place to play. Set design by Debra Booth provides a rustic look at an Irish hedge school. Her dirt covered floor, bricked walls, and thatched roof conveys a sense of a rural home while sharp metal, a steep staircase, and a rickety door foreshadow potential dangers ahead. Costume design by Wade Laboissonniere grounds the show in drab earth tones covered in dust for the Irish and bright, caustic reds for the Brits. The most effective element of the technical design comes from sound designer Palmer Hefferan. Her chosen musical palette of Celtic strings and percussion along with environmental sounds do double duty in contextualizing the play’s temporality and geography along with creating variations in ambience from quiet country hamlet to ominous thunder and rain.

Torney has assembled a team that does everything in its power to make Studio Theatre’s Translations a journey worth taking, but they would benefit with a more competent leader at front. The cast and crew do admirable work in this effort despite Torney; I can only imagine the hurdles they’ve had to overcome to get here.

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