Two Yeats Plays
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
March 31, 2006
The plays of W. B. Yeats are not easy plays to “get.” Yeats was first and foremost a poet known for such works as “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold….”), and his plays are often highly theatrical works written with a poets’ eye. Fortunately, the members of Handcart Ensemble get Yeats, and the company’s staging of two of his one-act plays, simply titled Two Yeats Plays, serves as a fine introduction to his dramatic vision.
The first play, The Cat and the Moon, is about neither—it’s the tale of two beggars, one blind and one lame, who make a pilgrimage to a holy well in search of miracle cures. A saint appears to them at the well and gives each a choice—do they want to be healed, or would they instead rather be blessed? Ensemble members David D’Agostini and Javen Tanner are an engaging duo as the two beggars; Tanner in particular does some fine physical work as the lame beggar, and also earns a few laughs as his character grills the saint about exactly what the benefits of a blessing are.
The Only Jealousy of Emer is the second play; it’s based on a story from a Celtic epic about the hero Cuchulain, in which his wife Emer rescues him from an enchantment cast on him by the fairy woman Fand. Yeats took some liberties with the myth, introducing a trickster god who intervenes to give Emer a choice—he will rescue Cuchulain if she agrees to give up one of the things she values most. Those completely unfamiliar with Irish mythology might feel a bit at sea, but this is entirely the playwright’s fault—Yeats assumed his audiences knew, or at least should know, more about Celtic mythology than some of them actually did. Fortunately, taking a quick look at Handcart’s program notes during intermission is more than enough to bring you up to speed. Even if you don’t, it’s clear enough that Emer, played with grave nobility by Jjana Valentiner, is being pressed into making a heartbreaking choice.
The company really shines in capturing the look of the plays. Yeats was strongly influenced by Japanese Noh theatre, using masks, music, and symbolic gestures and dance in his works. Designer Elena Zlotescu serves double duty with set and costumes, creating elaborate masks for the characters in each piece and using only four wooden planks and a heavy drop cloth to stand in for both a country road and Cuchulain’s hall. In this world, though, that’s enough—our beggars tramp just as well along those wooden planks as they would along a more realistic road. It’s also striking on a purely visual level as well, with the black box of the stage setting off the bright white and stark red of those planks, and Zlotescu’s rich robes for the court of Cuchulain and the plain white robes of the supporting ensemble.
Each play also begins with a sung form of one of Yeats’s poems, and ends with a dance. I did wish for a slightly different arrangement for the poem that preceded Emer—musically it's lovely, but it is sung in a modified round style and I couldn’t quite catch the words. The dance in Emer was similarly lovely but seemed to challenge others in the audience slightly (a woman with two young children sat behind me, and during Emer’s dance I overheard a whispered, “Mom, what’s that lady doing?”). The music and dance in The Cat and the Moon are more closely tied to the plot, and I even heard some audience members singing “The Cat and the Moon” to themselves during intermission.
Yeats aficionados should definitely consider attending, while those in search of something a little different, and those looking for a bit of a challenge, will also be amply rewarded.