Irish Repertory Theatre: casting O’Casey’s shadow over Manhattan

To celebrate 30 years in New York, the company is staging the playwright’s ‘Dublin’ trilogy

As you turn into a quiet street in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, the façade of the Irish Repertory Theatre edges into view. The former warehouse is the home of New York's only theatre dedicated to Irish and Irish-American drama. Inside the main theatre, the space has been transformed into an urban scape from 1920s Dublin, its encroaching walls evoking the cramped, damp squalor of a Dublin tenement. As part of its 30th anniversary celebrations, the Irish Rep is staging Sean O'Casey's "Dublin" trilogy over a series of weeks, beginning with The Shadow of a Gunman. The production of the powerful tragi-comedy has already earned the company and director Ciarán O'Reilly widespread acclaim: the Wall Street Journal called it a "stunning revival" and "a major artistic achievement". It was also selected as a New York Times Critics' Pick.

It's all a far cry from 30 years ago when O'Reilly and Charlotte Moore founded the company.

"We decided to get together and do a season of plays and soon realised that there was an opening for a company specifically dedicated to Irish drama," recalls O'Reilly, who is originally from Cavan and moved to the United States in 1978. "There was the Puerto Rico travelling theatre company, the Jewish Repertory Theatre company. Yet here we were, in the theatre capital of the world, and there was no Irish theatre company."

Their first performance was an O’ Casey play, Juno and the Paycock, and over the next seven years they worked as a travelling company, staging four- to six-week runs in theatres all over New York.

Chemical warehouse

In 1995 the group found a permanent home – a former chemical warehouse in Chelsea. “We signed a 12-year lease, and the owner kindly gave us six months’ free rent while we fixed it up and made it into a theatre,” recalls O’Reilly. “There was no feasibility studies, or endless meetings. We couldn’t afford not to open, so we just began work,” he smiles. “Some people came and worked in the building for free, companies donated materials. We raised funds through a capital campaign in the community and took out a loan to finish it.”

The move to Chelsea helped to establish the Irish Repertory Theatre in the New York cultural scene, and it soon became an important fixture in the off-Broadway theatre world.

Over the decades it has staged both classic and contemporary Irish theatre – from familiar names such as Brian Friel and Conor McPherson, to the Yeats Project, an innovative production of William Butler Yeats's lesser-known plays.

The company has seen some of the big names of theatre pass through. In the early years, legendary Broadway producer Harold Prince, who collaborated with Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, wrote and produced an adaptation of O'Casey's autobiographies.

The company had a long association with the late Frank McCourt. More recently, Tony award-winning actor Matthew Broderick starred in McPherson's The Seafarer.

Grand surroundings

The company's dramatisation of James Joyce's short story The Dead, which is transported each year to the grand surroundings of the American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue, has become a staple of the New York theatre season each winter. Its adaptation by poet Paul Muldoon and his wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, allows 57 guests at a time to participate in the recreation of Joyce's famous 1904 story.

Lots of people, including reviewers, have said that this is their first encounter with O'Casey

But it was to O’Casey that the Irish Rep returned as it prepared to mark its 30th anniversary. Thirty years after the company marked its arrival on the New York theatre scene with a performance of Juno and the Paycock, the company is staging O’Casey’s three “Dublin” plays – the Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926) – over a four-month period. All three will be performed over a single day on several Saturdays in May.

The plays are being performed in the order in which they were written. O’Casey, who had been working as a labourer, famously found success with The Shadow of a Gunman when it premiered at the Abbey in 1923. While O’Reilly says that O’Casey was a natural choice, he was surprised at the lack of awareness about the Dublin playwright in New York.

"Lots of people, including reviewers, have said that this is their first encounter with O'Casey. This is despite the fact that he was so popular here during his lifetime," he says. Hundreds of thousands of copies of O'Casey's plays and autobiographies were sold, he notes, while many of his lesser-known plays were performed on Broadway. "It was through O'Casey that the American public got to know some of the great actors like Barry Fitzgerald, FJ McCormack, Eileen Crowe – actors that were picked up by John Ford. "

Decade of centenaries

Given the links between O’Casey’s work and the emergence of the Irish State in the 1920s, O’Reilly says the current decade of centenaries marking key moments in Irish history did impinge on the decision to revisit O’Casey’s plays. “Yes, it is relevant. Telling that historical narrative was part of our idea to stage the trilogy over one day, beginning with the 1916 play The Plough and the Stars and finishing with Juno.”

But O’Reilly believes that O’Casey’s real relevance to today’s time lies in his depiction of women. “There’s a line in Juno. Mary worries her child will have no father, and Juno replies: ‘It’ll have what’s far better – it will have two mothers.’ Lines like these, and the depiction of the strength, the conviction of women characters in Shadow of a Gunman, is a reminder of how progressive O’Casey really was.”

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