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Flavor of Ireland: Southwest Irish Theater Festival offers five pieces with a focus on the Emerald Isle

Masked performers are featured in “Cathleen ni Houlihan” performed by Theaterwork as part of the Southwest Irish Theater Festival. (Courtesy of Petr Jerabek)

Masked performers are featured in “Cathleen ni Houlihan” performed by Theaterwork as part of the Southwest Irish Theater Festival. (Courtesy of Petr Jerabek)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Monday after Theaterwork gave weekend performances of “Molly Sweeney” in Albuquerque late last November, David Olson got a phone call.

It was Alan Hudson, founder of the Southwest Irish Theater Festival in the Duke City, enthusing that the play simply had to be part of the upcoming festival, according to Olson, artistic director of Theaterwork in Santa Fe.

Four months later, that invitation has blossomed into a full schedule this weekend and next of poetry, drama, dance and song that plumb the depths of myth and struggle that reside in the Irish soul.

“Once we got thinking, if we’re going to do a festival … why not do a branch of the festival here?” said Olson, who, despite his name, has a rich Irish heritage through his mother’s large family. “Lots happened, very quickly… . It’s been literally an explosion of ideas.”

Jack Sherman and Elise Manning portray father-daughter composers at odds in “The Cordelia Dream.” (Courtesy of Petr Jerabek)

Jack Sherman and Elise Manning portray father-daughter composers at odds in “The Cordelia Dream.” (Courtesy of Petr Jerabek)

He had read Irish playwright Marina Carr’s play, “Cordelia’s Dream,” and decided, “This we have to do.” The play, commissioned by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, is inspired by “King Lear.” The piece hasn’t been performed on American soil before, so Carr herself will make an appearance, giving a talk on “what it’s like to be a playwright in Ireland” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the James A. Little Theater, Olson said.

The play is an elegant verbal duel between a man and woman, father and daughter, who are both composers, yet have been estranged for many years. The father, who feels his daughter has stolen his musical ideas and crippled his own ability to create music, has not even met his grandchildren, Olson said.

But even as he accuses her, she responds, “That’s what art is” – the recasting and building on all that has come before.

In the second act, five years later, the daughter he calls “the dog-hearted one” visits again, promising to give him the gift of helping him create the ultimate composition, superior to anything done before.

Yes, Olson said, there will be music played at the end, but he wouldn’t reveal what it would be.

This play reflects a radiance in “King Lear” that Olson said he didn’t understand until he was old. “I see his fear and struggle, even as he causes terrible things to happen,” he said. “But inside him is a search for something radiant and transforming.”

With those two plays in place, Olson encountered local playwright and actress Leslie Harrell Dillen, who had buried herself in the correspondence between poet W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne, a fiery supporter of the Irish resistance and the rights of women.

“This was someone I didn’t know about,” Olson said. “Someone has to write a film about them.”

Jonathan Dixon, left, is W.B. Yeats and Leslie Harrell Dillen plays Maud Gonne in “A White Notebook.” (Courtesy of Petr Jerabek)

Jonathan Dixon, left, is W.B. Yeats and Leslie Harrell Dillen plays Maud Gonne in “A White Notebook.” (Courtesy of Petr Jerabek)

But Dillen did write a two-person piece, “A White Notebook,” with Yeats and Gonne reading aloud their letters, standing apart on the stage. The two had a brief love affair, but poured much of their passion into correspondence from 1889-1938, Olson said.

The reading includes a powerful speech by Gonne, in which she bears poignant witness to seeing sunken-cheeked children starving and grief setting up permanent residence in the eyes of women who saw their little ones dying, one after the other. She issues a fervent call for women of Ireland to “shake off their indifference,” and seek an end to the English oppression that sustained and deepened that deadly famine.

The letters between the two towering figures also refer to “Cathleen ni Houlihan,” a play that Yeats wrote and in which Gonne played the title figure. It created a scandal and turmoil in the streets after its first performance, according to Olson.

The 40-minute play, which is paired in performance with Dillen’s piece, is set in 1798, when there was an Irish uprising against the English, he said. When a woman in the play says, “The strangers have stolen my four fields,” everyone knew she meant the four provinces taken under English control.

Cathleen ni Houlihan, Olson explained, is a mythical figure sometimes thought of as “Mother Ireland,” who has been in Irish folklore since at least the Middle Ages. “She’s a figure that appeared whenever Ireland was in peril,” he said.

The play is set during the night before the eldest son is to be married, but he leaves his family, over the protests of his parents and young bride-to-be. “Cathleen shows up to take Michael with her into battle, although none is going on,” Olson said.

Her costume for this play, created by Jasminka Jesic, consists of charred white linens, with red roses caught up in netting around the skirt. The design echoes words of Yeats that helped convince Olson to do this play, combined with an image of Cathleen appearing on a battlefield and absorbing the blood of the rebels.

“Yeats wrote of visiting a battlefield of the uprising. He said he felt he could see the bodies of young men coming out of the hills, and then he felt he saw the dead reach their hands into the earth beneath them and pull out red roses and stand and crown themselves,” Olson said.

“That image both disturbs and lifts me.”

Along with performances of “Molly Sweeney,” the festival rounds out with “All the Doors Swinging Wide!” featuring poetry, dance by Belisama Irish Dancers and music sung by 18 women, directed by Marilyn Barnes. “It will be all women on the stage,” Olson said.

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