Five playlets compose “The Women of Ireland,” an hour-long production from the Irish Heritage Theatre at the small playing space atop Plays & Players, and if the show were a party, I’m not sure why we’re being invited. The name of the production doesn’t seem to mean anything: Not all the pieces are written by women, nor are women prominent in every one.
Three are written by women alone, and the other two bear the imprimatur of celebrated Irish playwrights W. B. Yeats and John Millington Synge. Synge wrote his piece with Lady Gregory who, like him, was a playwright and founder of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1904 – more commonly known as the acclaimed Abbey Theatre.
The three shortest pieces are each under five minutes. They’re all contemporary, from a canon of short plays developed by Fishamble, a Dublin company devoted to new work. Here, they’re staged by Tina Brock, the leader of another Center City theater company, Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. The first of these, “Hearts,” by the Irish TV writer Lucy Montague Moffatt, is a quick conversation between a women who knits – in this case she talks about her latest woolen creation – and a woman who asks, a little suspiciously, about the knitting. It’s what some would call a “throwaway,” a little bit of dialogue, even less substance.
“Isolation” by Joan Ryan is a lame satire on the way we let our devices and machines control us. It’s a soundscape done in darkness, with the actors repetitively calling out some electronic commands we hear and some that people may hear more in Ireland. The third of the shortest pieces, “Poster Boy” by Antonia Hart, is about a mother and her son. She discerns the objectification of women in several of his interests, including the music he listens to; he dismisses her as overly sensitive. This play – a skit, really – illustrates the problem with such short works. Had it been developed into something two or three times its length, ”Poster Boy” could have the punch of an old Nichols-and-May skit. As it is, it’s just a shoulder shrugger.
The two longer pieces come from the turn of the century. Synge’s gloomy “Riders to the Sea,” directed by Tori Mittelman, is about a family whose sons have been lost at sea in different storms, just at the time the last of them is shipping out into questionable weather. I would have liked it better if I could understand it by more than just context – the accents were thick and the cast delivered many of the lines quickly. Its main attraction is the performance of the boys’ pathetic mother by Mary Pat Walsh amid cries from the village women.
“Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” by Yeats and Lady Gregory, is a historic piece that provides the best few minutes of the evening. Yes, there was a time when theater could inspire audiences to take action – director Marcia Ferguson explains in a program note that this play is said to have inspired folks, including women, to take part in the bloody six-day Easter Rising of 1916 against the British army, occurring long after the play was first staged. In it, the mystical Cathleen – the personification of a free Ireland – roams through towns to inspire young men to fight. Cathleen is played with just the right dose of eerie spirituality by Jackie Cohen, spooky and insistent when she stops at a house where a young man is a day away from his wedding. Performed by the cast with a palpable anxiety, the piece makes the evening worthwhile.
“The Women of Ireland,” produced by Irish Heritage Theatre, runs through April 21 at Plays & Players Theatre, on Delancey Place between 17th and 18th Streets. irishheritagetheatre.org.