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Cycle of Celtic plays celebrate theater

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Sean O’Casey’s devastating portrait of wasted potential in war-shattered Dublin opens the second Southwest Irish Theatre Festival at the Vortex Theatre on Friday, March 14.

This year’s celebration features a cycle of Celtic plays spanning three theaters in Albuquerque and one in Santa Fe.

Caroline Gaham as Mary in the play, “Juno and the Paycock.”

Caroline Gaham as Mary in the play, “Juno and the Paycock.”

This year marks Santa Fe’s first participation in the event through Theaterwork. Also for the first time, two playwrights will be in attendance: Patrick Fitzgerald will be at Aux Dog Theatre for the April 11 opening of “Gibraltar” and Marina Carr (“The Cordelia Dream”) will be in Santa Fe on March 22.

Dublin native Alan Hudson was one of the festival founders in 2012. He saw the event as a chance to showcase lesser-known playwrights.

“People know O’Casey and Brian Friel to some extent,” he said. “But there are a lot of Irish playwrights whose names are not well-known.”

First produced in 1924, “Juno and the Paycock” is by turns a funny domestic drama and a searing condemnation of class exploitation skewering the Irish penchant for self-delusion and magical thinking. “Juno” is the second in O’Casey’s so-called “Dublin” or “Abbey” cycle, a trilogy that includes “The Shadow of a Gunman” and “The Plough and the Stars.”

Through humor, tragedy and language, O’Casey excavates the impact of revolutionary politics on Dublin’s slums.

“They struggle and they struggle and they struggle, but nothing goes right for them,” director Brian Hansen said. “O’Casey was not fond of the Irish people. They went to see his plays, but there were riots in the theater. He says until Ireland can look honestly at its problems and stop living in this fantasy world, it will continue to live in these problems.”

Fantasy reigns throughout the 1922 Boyle family tenement. The strutting Capt. Jack, who would much rather drink than work, is the “paycock” (read “peacock”) of the play’s title.

“In fact, he’s only been to sea one time,” Hansen said. “And he was a deck hand.”

Jack brags about visiting a hemisphere of shorelines with soused bluster as his wife Juno repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to wrangle him from the bottle to work. Juno is the only family member with a job.

The couple’s pregnant daughter Mary is a trade union member striking to save the job of a woman she doesn’t even like. Their son, howling, haunted and hunted, lost an arm in the Easter Uprising. The IRA is targeting him for betraying a comrade. He’s trapped in a cauldron of impossible choices.

“The families have lost so many sons to this Civil War that the only thing they share is grief,” Hansen said.

Still, they fight, they sing, they joke, they recite poetry. Most of all, they drink.

Hansen has added a tiny mirror to the top of the family fireplace, both prop and symbol.

“They use it before they go out,” he said. “But it’s too small. They can’t see the whole of themselves.”

The company weighed whether to provide translations or alter O’Casey’s lyrical language. In the end, they decided to do neither.

“We’re talking about Irish dialect from the working class in a tenement district,” Hansen said. “We’re inviting the audience to become tourists and let the language and the people sweep over them.

“You might not understand every word, but you’ll sure understand the emotion.”

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