Irish Theater Festival Celebrates Rose Kennedy02:40

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ArtsEmerson produced "The Cripple of Inishmaan" in conjunction with the Druid Theatre, and a new play, "The Color of Rose," as a part of their Irish theater festival. "Terminus," an Abbey Theatre production, is also featured in the festival. WBUR's critic-at-large reviews all three plays.

From left, Karen MacDonald, Judith Roberts and Theresa Masse in "The Life of Rose" (Courtesy of ArtsEmerson)
From left, Karen MacDonald, Judith Roberts and Theresa Masse in "The Life of Rose" (Courtesy of ArtsEmerson)

As a former television critic I had to watch any number of TV-movies about the Kennedy family, and as a theater critic I’ve seen any number of plays delving into the psyches of famous people. “The Color of Rose,’’ receiving its world premiere at the Paramount Theatre Black Box as part of ArtsEmerson’s Irish festival, unfortunately feels more like a TV-movie than a fully developed play. A good TV-movie, but a TV-movie nonetheless.

Kathrine Bates’s play, based on a concept by Chuck Fries, is actually a dialogue that the elder Rose Kennedy has with her two younger selves — as a young mother and a middle-aged woman betrayed by her philandering husband, Joe. She’s about to be interviewed for a Mother’s Day TV special and she rehearses what she’s going to say with herself, or selves. The recapitulation of the major events of her life is done in fairly honorable and honest fashion, but it doesn’t really delve very deeply into the politics of the time or her own psychology.

It’s a little too respectful. You’d think that by having Rose represented by three different actresses there’d be a little more fireworks about what it was like to see your daughter lobotomized or your husband running around with other women, not to mention her own virtual disowning of her daughter Kathleen for marrying a Protestant. But despite a lot of good acting, it feels too straightforward and dramatically inert.

The play might have been better with just two Roses instead of three. Perhaps then the debate of how she behaved or what she remembers might have been more focused and more pointed.

Another three actors take to the Paramount Mainstage in the Abbey Theatre production of Mark O’Rowes “Terminus,” with a sensibility about 180 degrees south of “The Color of Rose’’ as three unnamed characters recount a night of encounters with demons, devils and other nasty folk in a series of bizarrely rhyming, intersecting monologues. Not that the threesome are a walk in the park, either. One is a serial killer and another seduced her daughter’s man.

If black humor is your thing, then McDonagh, best know for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and his one feature film, "In Bruges," is your guy. "The Cripple of Inishmaan" deals with a young man who wants to escape his dreary coastal town so he tries to get cast in "Man of Aran," Robert Flaherty’s classic film about the rigors of life away from the cities.

But McDonagh is the anti-Flaherty. These aren’t noble savages, but almost the Irish equivalent of trailer-trash and watching them go at each other can be hilarious when McDonagh’s done right — kind of "Playboy of the Western World" meets "Pulp Fiction." And this one is certainly done right as it’s being produced by the Druid Theatre and directed by McDonagh specialist Garry Hynes.

The ensemble work is surprisingly subtle, given that McDonagh lends himself to actors going over the top. It’d be tempting to say that the Druid brings out the humanity in the characters, but humanism isn’t really what McDonagh is about. The best one can hope for is to hold one’s head above water in a world that can seem so dreary and disappointing — on a good day. That these actors, and director Hynes, can hit those less slapstick notes while still maintaining their sense of humor is what makes this production exceptional.

A lot of contemporary theater gets bogged down in ethnocentrism or a narrow sense of exploring what it means to black/Jewish/gay, etc. McDonagh’s work is a great counterpoint to all that. Sometimes it’s better to just break away from identity politics. By the way, a showing of "Man of Aran" and a Rose Kennedy walking tour of Boston are some of the extras of the festival.

One of the theaters that’s really missed in Boston is the Sugan Theatre Company, which brought so many new Irish plays to town. So hats off to ArtsEmerson for picking up the ball.

"The Color of Rose" continues through Feb. 13 at the Paramount Theatre Black Box. “The Cripple of Inishmaan” will be touring the country through the middle of June. Check out ArtsEmerson for a complete list of Irish Festival activities.

This program aired on February 1, 2011.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.