Review: `The Shadow of the Glen,’ `The Playboy of the Western World’

Members of the Irish theater company Druid perform a double feature of John Millington Synge plays at Berkeley’s Roda Theatre as part of the Cal Performances season. Photos courtesy of Druid

Druid tops double bill with perky `Playboy’

So we’re not getting all 8 ½ hours of Druid’s mammoth DruidSynge cycle of John Millington Synge plays. But we can be grateful for the nearly three hours we do get.

Founded in Galway, Ireland in 1975 by fresh-faced theater graduates Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen and Mick Lally, Druid was the first professional theater company formed outside of Dublin (and its name hails from the “Asterix” comics).

In the more than 30 years of its existence, Druid has become a theatrical force in Ireland (along with The Abbey and The Gate), introducing the world to the work of Martin McDonagh and re-introducing the work of Synge in a 2005 cycle of all six Synge plays performed in one long stretch. DruidSynge traveled the world, and now, in a slightly reduced state, it makes its Bay Area debut as part of the Cal Performances series in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, who provides its Roda Theatre for the event.

Druid’s traveling presentation comprises two plays: the short but potent The Shadow of the Glen and Synge’s best known work, the beguiling The Playboy of the Western World.

This mini-Synge fest, which opened Wednesday, Oct. 8, and continues through Sunday, Oct. 12, offers a unique opportunity to see Synge performed without the Irish cutesiness that so often accompanies American attempts at these dark, curious plays.

Directed by Hynes (the first woman to win a best director Tony for her work on McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1998), these two plays are a fascinating double feature. Both feature men who are supposed to be dead but turn out not to be dead. Both plots are essentially fired up by protagonists striking out against the tyranny of deep country loneliness. And both feature Irish peasantry that seems as fantastical and poetic as something out of Shakespeare by way of Beckett by way of Gaelic mythology.

In Shadow we enter into a grim country home. The lady of the house (Catherine Walsh) is watching over the body of her recently deceased husband (Tom Hickey) when a tramp (Peter Gowen) drops in the hope of receiving some sustenance and getting out of the rain.

Within the half hour, the dead has arisen and lives are completely re-ordered amid much shouting and accusation hurling. No one is going gently into any good night here.

Playboy is, of course, the centerpiece of the evening, but the echoes of Shadow resonate. Hynes has set a tone of antic grimness, and that explodes in “Playboy,” which is more of an outright comedy – a farce even, at some points.

Things must be pretty dull in the coastal region of Mayo because the arrival of a stranger named Christy Mahon (Simon Boyle) throws the whole area into a tizzy. Christy claims he has killed his father, and that badge of lawlessness makes him appealing to just about everyone, especially the fiery Pegeen Mike (Sarah-Jane Drummey), who will gladly dump her churchy fiancé (Marcus Lamb) for this hyperactive young murderer.

The whole town clamors for Christy – until his father shows up, very much not dead. Oh, how fickle the folk can be. You’re a superstar celebrity one moment, the object of a lynching the next.

Hynes and her actors masterfully balance the darkness and the comedy, which makes for a strangely textured but highly enjoyable evening. The sadness, drinking and desperation that run through each play are tinged with manic comedy and laughter in the face of death.

Apparently there were riots at the opening of both these Synge plays back in the early part of the 20th century because of the way he portrayed Irish peasantry, and especially the way he portrayed women. But here in the 21st century, Synge seems a master of many levels – an ironic farceur laughing through the pub and the graveyard.


Druid’s The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World continue through Sunday, Oct. 12 at the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $75. Call 510-642-9988 or visit

Russian Shakespeare? Say DA!

I saw an extraordinary production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Thursday night in Berkeley. Below is a WEB EXCLUSIVE review. If you’re in the Bay Area this weekend, the show continues through Sunday. You should go.

You may not think you speak Russian, but you might be wrong. After seeing the Twelfth Night continuing through Sunday at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse, you may discover you understand more Russian than you realized.

It helps that the Russian men are performing a famous Shakespearean comedy, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are abbreviated supertitles to help guide us through the text.

But the amazing thing about this production — a product of the British company Cheek by Jowl and Cal Performances — is that as the play goes on, you rely less and less on the supertitles and more and more on the excellent actors.

Their broad playing style brings clarity and meaning, even if the words sound like, well, Russian.
What is the strange, international alchemy at work here? You’ve got two Brits — director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod — in charge of 13 Russian actors in a 400-year-old British play translated into Russian.

Sounds like the recipe for a mess, but in reality, this production, which originated several years ago at the Chekhov International Theatre Festival — offers some of the clearest, cleanest Shakespeare you’re likely to see.

Having a working knowledge of Twelfth Night — even if it’s just a guilty-pleasure screening of She’s the Man — is helpful because the gender-bending machinations of the plot get even twistier when played, as it was in Shakespeare’s day, by an all-male cast.

The central character is Viola, a shipwreck survivor who believes her twin brother, Sebastien, drowned in the wreck. To protect herself in a strange land, she disguises herself as a boy named Cesario.

Before you know it, Cesario is the object of affection of both the Count Orsino and the Countess Olivia.

So to be clear: you’ve got a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a boy. It’s all very Victorsky/Victorinska.

But as played by the marvelous Andrey Kuzichev, it’s easy to see why everyone falls in love with Viola/Cesario. Without overdoing it, he reminds us that he’s an intelligent young woman in disguise whose confidence only occasionally falters in the face of so much romantic intrigue.

The other revelation of this production is Dmitry Shcherbina as Malvolio, steward to the countess. An arrogant ass, Malvolio inspires the vengeful wrath of his fellow servants. They play a trick on him involving a love letter supposedly written by his mistress.

The letter speech is well known, but Shcherbina detonates it, and one monologue becomes a multi-layered three-act drama unto itself. Talk about an actor seizing the dramatic moment! Suddenly Malvolio is much more than comic relief: he’s a complex, conflicted, rather ego-blinded soul.

Donnellan and Ormerod keep their stage simple and mostly bare but ever active. The 2 1/2-hour play’s first half is all black and white, while the second half is all warm, creamy beige tones.
There’s a relaxed, realistic tone to the production, even for all the actors’ grand gesturing. The festive atmosphere is heightened by music — a nice blend of guitar- and trumpet-driven sambas — and when the happy ending comes, it’s actually more than happy. It’s touching.

Shakespeare purists might object to the trimming and shuffling of dialogue and scenes, but Donnellan, Ormerod and their Russian team have done exactly what you need to do with Shakespeare: make it fresh by making it your own.

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, presented by Cal Performances and Cheek by Jowl, is at 8 p.m. Dec. 8; 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 9 and 7 p.m. Dec. 10 at Zellerbach Playhouse, Bancroft Way at Dana Court, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $65. Call (510) 642-9988 or visit

They do not move

One of the most famous stage directions in theater history _ other than Shakespeare’s “Exit, pursued by a bear” _ is from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. At the end of the absurdist comedy’s first act, two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, are frustrated. They’ve been waiting and waiting for Mr. Godot who never seems to show up.

“Well?” says one. “Shall we go?”

“Yes,” says the other. “Let’s go.”

Then Beckett adds: “They do not move.”

It’s sort of like how Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing. In its exploration of nothingness, it managed to be about a zillion different things.

Everyone wants to know who Godot is. Is he God? Is he Death?

“If I knew, I would have said so in the play,” said a cranky Beckett, clearly tired of being asked to explain his cryptic comedy.

Figure out the Godot riddle for yourself this week as Cal Performances brings back the Gate Theatre of Ireland production starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy in the lead roles. McGovern and Murphy also starred in the 2000 production that rolled through Berkeley.

Performances are at 8 p.m. today and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $65. Call (510) 642-9988 or visit for information.