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‘The Plough and the Stars’ on stage at American Repertory Theater

Susan Saccoccia | 10/7/2016, 6 a.m.
Written by Seán O’Casey (1880-1964), a socialist and the first prominent Irish playwright to write about Dublin’s working-class people, “The ...
The Abbey Theatre’s production of “The Plough and the Stars” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

“I’m a Dublin man,” says an unarmed man to the soldier pointing a gun at his head, as if that fact should be sufficient reason for him to lower his weapon.

Instead, the soldier takes him into custody in this scene from the Abbey Theatre production of “The Plough and the Stars,” at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square through October 9. Written by Seán O’Casey (1880-1964), a socialist and the first prominent Irish playwright to write about Dublin’s working-class people, the play alternates between scenes of humor and anguish in its neighborhood-scale portrayal of the Easter Rising of 1916.

That bloody six-day skirmish in Dublin launched the use of violence instead of politics by Irish republicans as a means to win Ireland’s independence from Britain. Although its leaders were promptly executed and civilian casualties were heavy, the Easter Rising remains enshrined in Irish history as pivotal in establishing the Irish Free State, which became today’s Republic of Ireland.

On the web

The Abbey Theatre production of “The Plough and the Stars” https://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/plough-and-stars

The play’s title is drawn from the symbols on the rebel flag, a plough and the Big Dipper, a constellation that dominates the night sky in Ireland.

Just a decade after the Rising, the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theater company, premiered O’Casey’s play in Dublin. The production provoked riots for its antiheroic message. O’Casey took a dim view of violence and populated the play with tenement residents whose suffering, raunchy humor and decency make them more sympathetic than the rebels and their high-minded leaders.

Marking the centennial of the Easter Rising, the company is touring with its powerful and entertaining new production, directed by Sean Holmes. Mining the irony in O’Casey’s play, its contemporary, spare staging brings O’Casey’s scathing satire up to date, evoking violence between a government and its citizens in our day — from police brutality to the civil war in Syria.

As the production opens, a girl stands alone on stage and belts out a patriotic song. She begins to cough and spits up blood on her sheet music. The curtain opens to show the entire cast, seated in everyday clothes. She joins them and together they pull out furniture and create a living room. Representing their tenement building is three-tiered scaffolding to the side of the stage.

Jon Bausor designed the versatile, expressive set, with agile lighting by Paul Keogan that darkens as daily tenement life falls apart in a city under siege. Music and sound by Philip Stewart lend a rich dimension to this production. Actors burst into song and a hypnotic recorded voice narrates passages from speeches of Pádraig Pearse, a poet and teacher who became commander of the Rising, as he proclaims that independence is worth bloodshed. Costumes by Catherine Fay vary from the muted garb of the rebels and British soldiers to the foppish plumed uniform of an old uncle who is a proud member of the Irish National Foresters, a fraternal organization with more pageantry than clout.

Running 2½ hours, including one intermission, the production seems long at times, because, at least on opening night, some speeches were difficult to understand due to the actors’ Irish accents. But all 14 members of the cast are convincing in their parts, and their robust physical acting conveys character with vivid body language.