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October 26, 2012

TT: The martyr machine

Today's Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted in its entirety to the Irish Repertory Theatre's off-Broadway revival of Brian Friel's The Freedom of the City. Here's an excerpt.

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Politics makes most artists stupid--but not Brian Friel. "The Freedom of the City," written in 1973 and newly revived by the Irish Repertory Theatre, appears on the surface to be a fictionalized portrayal of "Bloody Sunday," the terrible afternoon in 1972 when British soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed men at a civil-rights protest in Northern Ireland. But Mr. Friel has never been one to go in for the obvious, and "The Freedom of the City" has no more (or less) to do with Bloody Sunday than "All the King's Men" has to do with Huey Long. It is not so much a history play as a meditation on how politics can crush innocent people in the pincers of absurdity, and the Irish Rep's production, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly with a galvanizing blend of force and subtlety, is as wrenching as the play itself.

Freedom511_C.Rosegg.jpgMr. Friel signals his deeper purpose at the outset by setting "The Freedom of the City" not in 1972 but two years earlier. As his fictional protest unfolds, three marchers take cover from tear gas inside a nearby government building, where they discover to their astonishment that they're hiding out in the mayor's office. None of them is in any way militant, much less inclined to violence. Michael (James Russell) is an earnest, priggish activist for Catholic rights, Lily (Cara Seymour) is a good-natured but ill-educated mother of 11, and Skinner (Joseph Sikora) is a cynical, ne'er-do-well drifter. As the three drink the mayor's whisky and marvel at the fanciness of his furniture, the soldiers surrounding the building wrongly conclude that it has been occupied by 40 armed protesters...

The Irish Rep's revival is above all else a masterpiece of tightly unified staging and design. Charlie Corcoran, the set designer, has festooned the company's tiny 135-seat auditorium with barbed wire and painted its walls with slogans, and Mr. O'Reilly fills the aisles with gun-wielding soldiers who are rarely more than a foot or two from the audience. M. Florian Staab, the sound designer, and Ryan Rumery, who wrote the incidental music, rend the air with the heartless sounds of rising chaos. Only an ensemble of formidably talented actors could hope to rise above the maelstrom and give memorable performances, and Mr. O'Reilly has found just the right people for the job....

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Read the whole thing here.

A trailer for The Freedom of the City:

Posted October 26, 2012 12:00 AM

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