Asked to describe an apple, most of us would come up with "red" and "round." Ask a poet like William Butler Yeats the same question and he'd respond with something completely different. For poets, the truth is fractured, complex, and lies beyond the commonplace.
This is why Open Mind Firmament, an Evening of W.B. Yeats at Cleveland Public Theatre can be stunning, confounding, and revealing — often at the same time. Adapted and directed by Raymond Bobgan, CPT's artistic director, this multilayered piece threads the words of Yeats with those of Barton R. Friedman, the recently deceased academic who taught at Cleveland State University.
But there are more than words at work in this two-hour evocation of Yeats' mythic universe centered on the Irish hero Cuchulain and his mortal enemy Aoife (respectively pronounced ka-HOO-lin and EE-fah, for the Gaelically challenged). Employing dance, chants, singing, and stylized gestures, Bobgan creates a rich cloak of imagery to pull the Cuchulain Cycle's five plays together (or as together as they're likely to ever get).
Cuchulain, a legendary warrior and lover, is also known as the "Irish Achilles" for his devil-may-care bravery and impulsivity. In short, he's a free-range Ulster jock who is passionately in love with Ireland, represented as the archetype maiden of his — and his countrymen's — dreams.
Bobgan's script utilizes running commentary, from both Friedman and Yeats, as each play is briefly enacted or referenced. Sometimes refreshingly blunt and other times obscure, this adaptation teases and tantalizes. But if you're hankering for a clear storyline, you'd have better luck ordering the sushi platter at Sullivan's Irish Pub.
Instead, one can enjoy the flashing fire of Yeats' poetry, like this enduring gem from his poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion": "Now that my ladder's gone/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."
Those ladders show up, along with silvery bowls filled with water, amid many luminous staging effects. The cast moves in ethereal ways, sometimes using Japanese Noh theater gestures — a style that fascinated Yeats. This is augmented by Trad A Burns' starkly effective scenic design (it's played in a large open square, with the audience on four sides) and simple but evocative lighting.
Brett Keyser is the Poet who anchors the 16-person cast, and he is absolutely compelling. Lean and intense, but with a playful side, Keyser is able to invite even the most resistant observer into this gifted writer's bounteous world of mystery and myth. As the Scholar, John Stuehr is mechanical and a tad overwrought at the start, but fortunately he mellows out as the play progresses.
Raymond McNiece looks the part as the longhaired and burly Cuchulain, although his vocal delivery seems rather passive at times. But that isn't a problem with Chris Seibert and Sheffia Randall Dooley, who craft crisp and incisive characters. And Jeremy Paul drops the show's funniest line ("That was boring!") after the first play in the cycle.
It's not boring, but certainly challenging. What this production requires of the audience is clearly stated in the title: Open Mind Firmament. Bring that along, and it's quite a ride.
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