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Brendan Conroy roams empty theaters and a rocky landscape in cinematic reimagining of The Aran Islands (photo courtesy Irish Rep)

Irish Rep Online
March 23-28, suggested donation $25

As far as I can tell, no other company in the world has been able to accomplish what the Irish Rep has during the pandemic lockdown. And the West Twenty-Second St. institution has done it again with the stirring hybrid presentation of John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands, about the Dublin writer’s experiences in the islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1898, a journey urged by W. B. Yeats.

The Irish Rep has quenched at least part of the thirst of theater lovers desperate for entertainment by reimagining past works for the virtual environment, using innovative techniques that include green-screened backgrounds and real props that make it appear that the actors are in the same room. In Conor McPherson’s The Weir, the characters seemed to be passing around drinks as they each shared a ghost story. In Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, it looked as if family members were sitting at the same table at an inn.

The company, which was founded in 1988 by Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly, who are still at the helm and leading the online programming, also has produced Darren Murphy’s The Gifts You Gave to the Dark, a live show filmed with a smartphone (and one of the first to address the health crisis directly); Bill Irwin’s On Beckett, updated for the pandemic and beginning with Irwin walking down Twenty-Second St. and entering the Irish Rep, performing onstage to empty seats; and Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward, in which Steve Ross and KT Sullivan revisit their recent two-person hit at the Irish Rep by moving into the Players, following all Covid-19 protocols.

And now the Irish Rep and Co-Motion Media, which teamed up in 2017 for Joe O’Byrne’s adaptation of Synge’s 1907 book, The Aran Islands, have transformed the one-man show into a gripping, uncanny film, directed by O’Byrne and again starring Brendan Conroy. The ninety-minute work was shot by O’Byrne in the New Theatre and the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin as well as on the rocky shores of the title location, where a grizzled Conroy, portraying a descendant of Synge’s, roams around through the fog and mist, searching for folks speaking Gaelic and relating wonderful tales, often with a supernatural twist, by and about the people he encounters, taking on their personas. A fairy steals a child. An elderly man misses the old days. The blind storyteller of Mourteen, bent over with rheumatism, spins a yarn about two farmers, their son and daughter, and a bargain involving a bag of gold and cut-off flesh. A dead man tries to catch his unfaithful wife in the act. These and other anecdotes reveal a unique, incorruptible people who have different ideas about family and justice, hell and death.

He says of the islanders, “If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law. Such a man, they say, will be quiet all the rest of his life, and if you suggest that punishment is needed as an example, they ask, ‘Would any one kill his father if he was able to help it?’”

Brendan Conroy gives a tour-de-force performance in The Aran Islands (photo courtesy Irish Rep)

At a burial, the traveler poetically explains, “This grief of the keen is no personal complaint for the death of one woman over eighty years, but seems to contain the whole passionate rage that lurks somewhere in every native of the island. In this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for an instant, and to reveal the mood of beings who feel their isolation in the face of a universe that wars on them with winds and seas. They are usually silent, but in the presence of death all outward show of indifference or patience is forgotten, and they shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of the fate to which they are all doomed.”

The interior set design is by Margaret Nolan, with costume by Marie Tierney, lighting by Conleth White, and lovely original music by Kieran Duddy; O’Byrne (Departed, Enough) also edited the film, with shadowy superimpositions and ruminative shots of the sea. Conroy (Translations, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World) delivers a tour de force performance, adjusting his accent, demeanor, and intonation for each character, every story worn into the deep lines of his face. It’s a treat for lovers of story, and one that is triumphant as a film, evolving from a book and a play in what feels like a seamless, organic way.

It’s also a marker of time, of a life lived, of right now, after a year spent in isolation, without travel or in-person theater. As Synge’s descendant states: “The old man is suggesting that I should send him a clock when I go away. He’d like to have something from me in the house, he says, the way they wouldn’t forget me, and wouldn’t a clock be as handy as another thing, and they’d be thinking of me whenever they’d look on its face.” We do have this play, although it will be available only through March 28.

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