[article as originally published in Exeunt Magazine, October 15, 2016.]

[featured image caption: A modernist gloss on Irish history. Photo: Carol Rosegg.]

59E59 THEATERS ⋄ 6TH – 23RD OCTOBER 2016

Concept trumps history, even Cromwell’s 17th-century Irish ethnic cleansing. Martha Wade Steketee reviews.

A history play re-conceived as a modernist gloss on universal themes can reveal deep truths. In director Pamela Moller Kareman’s design-heavy treatment of Helen Edmundson’s 1993 play, The Clearing, however, the modernist gloss dulls. Concept trumps nuance, speeches are swallowed by actor movements, costuming choices raise more questions than answers, and specifics and universals end up in a bit of a muddle.

The Clearing is set in the three-year period 1652-1655, after the execution of King Charles I at the culmination of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell, a Parliamentarian at the head of the anti-king factions, holds post-war titles of Lord-General and Commander in Chief of the Commonwealth and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and has some cleaning up to do. While the published play script provides detailed background notes on the oppression, imprisonment, exile, and murder of the Irish after this war,  the playbill does not specify any specific historical era nor reference Cromwell’s actions, which may be a loss to modern audiences less attuned to these historical specifics.

However, even an audience without the history lesson can understand important themes in this production: the plight of the conquered in wartime, and the politicization of interpersonal relationships between victors and vanquished, here between English and Irish. The Clearing charts the story of a young couple from disparate backgrounds and depicts how their different upbringings affect their decisions when confronted with oppressive rule. English Robert (Jakob von Eichel) and Irish Madeleine (Quinn Cassavale) have been married for a few years, have just had a child, and face the challenge of competing loyalties. Killaine (Lauren Currie Lewis) is an Irish housemaid and childhood friend of Madeleine’s, who may be in love with her (at least as this actress plays her) and who is at risk of being shipped off by the conquering English. Madeleine’s old boyfriend Pierce (Hamish Allan-Headley) has joined the rebel Irish guerrilla forces and enters periodically from the forest to glower and announce his political position. Neighbor farmers Solomon (David Licht) and Susaneh (Tessa Zugmeyer) are loyal and caught in the political fallout.

The characters of Robert and Madeleine as portrayed by von Eichel and Cassavle revert to their clans without generating emotional connections. We learn the history of the English and Irish sides of the contest rather than feel their personal stakes. On the other hand, select supporting performances are especially moving, including Licht and Zugmeyer as the loving neighbor farmers caught in the cross fire, and the loyal and torn house servant Killaine, who gradually loses her mind. Others are hampered by contemporary costuming by Kimberley Matela, including one English politician’s cell phone.

The set by Jason Bolen provides a sleek oaken surface that allows for a wild array of activities. The wooden flat upstage wall has ledges for climbing and leaning to serve as a village wall, the hull of a ship holding involuntary indentured servants, a forest clearing, and government offices. The eight actors exit and enter around and over this wall, and in this black box theater wait, change, and reenter from around the back. What could be efficient and spare is distracting: what will the wall serve as next? An ornate set of blocks on the stage floor cut up the already severely limited stage playing area – an intriguing design for a larger theater but a bit of a squeeze for this tiny one. The concept of the stones and areas over which the actors step (ravines or streams or passages from room to room, depending upon the scene) might work on a larger stage but here imposes a weighty design vision on a play that deals with significant history and needs some air to breathe.

Kareman’s direction around the wall seems at odds with simpler resolutions. At some points, actors are seated at the edges of the performing area, watching the action, perhaps only to facilitate speedy reentries in the next scenes. Establishing a permanent “Irish Greek chorus” with the off stage actors could have rooted some of the movement and allowed audience members’ minds to grapple with the words of the play without constant scurrying interruptions.

Design decisions pull focus as distractions rather than frame the story. And it is history worth knowing; I was happy to have been reminded of “to Hell or Connaught,” yet frustrated by this production’s theatrical treatment of the historical material.

The Clearing is on at 59E59 Theaters until 23rd October 2016. Click here for more details.

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