Blighted Journeys

Two plays land audiences in the wrong places.

The Weir / Cherchez Dave Robicheaux The Weir
Presented by Ensemble Theatre at the Civic, 3130 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights through March 10; 216-321-2930

Cherchez Dave Robicheaux
Presented by Red Hen Productions at Spaces, 2220 Superior Viaduct through March 23; 216-661-4301

The Weir's John Kolibab (left), Meg Kelly, and Bernard Canepari get - their Irish up.
The Weir's John Kolibab (left), Meg Kelly, and Bernard Canepari get their Irish up.
Theater rewards audiences with infinite voyages of mind and mood, transporting them anywhere from Neverland, where they can experience the fey pleasure of clapping for Tinkerbell, to the gothic imagination of a Tennessee Williams Southern belle. Yet when these journeys go awry, they prove ill-advised for vulnerable theatergoers. Two current works that coincidentally commence with the death of a child both give their viewers an ultimately painful ride.

Ensemble Theatre's The Weir, with its whiskey-soaked recitation of ghost stories, sends enervated audiences into the night air with a funereal pall. Across the river, ensconced in Spaces art gallery, Red Hen Productions' gamble on a new work, Cherchez Dave Robicheaux, is generating migraines in the guise of metaphysical farce. Theater, no matter how well-intentioned, can sometimes be a hazardous proposition.

Playwright Conor McPherson was a tender 26 when The Weir was first performed in 1997 in London's Royal Court Theatre. A melancholy rhapsody composed of the petty jealousies, rivalries, and small talk that emanate in every drinking establishment from Missouri to Moscow, the play is specifically set in a pub in the Northwest part of Ireland, where all tales converge in the supernatural. In England, McPherson's eerie verisimilitude was a huge hit with audiences, but here, the play's lack of conflict tends to leave them listless.

A weir is a dam that encloses fish in a stream. The play's weir is a pub where villagers congregate to bolster each other against life's lonely currents. They deal with their sorrows by imbibing hearty brews, in the process dredging up old memories, anxieties, and generations-old regrets.

The barkeep and two of his regulars (John Kolibab, Bernard Canepari, and Steven Vasse-Hansell) welcome the arrival of an old friend (Charles Kartali) and his comely female acquaintance (Meg Kelly), a fresh arrival from Dublin. Like Little Rascals showing off for Darla, the men take turns trying to impress the newcomer, verbally juggling local lore, which soon escalates into a series of ghostly tales. Finally, the woman, who has fled to this rural landscape to escape memories of her drowned child, outdoes them with her own personal haunting -- a tale terrifying enough to give Henry James's fabled screw an extra turn.

It would take a major playwriting talent to weave an evening of recited stories into a cohesive play. McPherson doesn't come close to possessing this skill. His work is crushing in its stasis, with a structure that makes it remote and contrived. More like an acted-out transcript, it is in desperate need of a dramatist to liberate it from its tedious minutiae of "fucks" (whimsically pronounced "fooks") and poured drinks. The play is all melancholy atmosphere, which makes it seem like embalmed Chekhov. The well-drawn characters are imprisoned in an airless tomb. Ensemble does what it can to make this unpleasant work palatable. Ron Newell's set is the ultimate in cozy Irish ambiance, with its stucco walls and inviting fireplace. Licia Colombi's staging does its best to animate a theatrical mummy.

The blame hardly lies with Ensemble's likable cast, which is so busy struggling to capture the Irish mood that there's little energy left for psychological nuances. Only Kelly, projecting a transcendent calm, manages to successfully evoke a culture where the supernatural and the quotidian walk hand in hand.

Fielding and Dickens used to send their strapping young heroes on the road to seek adventure and self-knowledge. Then it came time for the distaff side to hit the pavement. Lewis Carroll sent Alice to Wonderland; MGM sent Dorothy to Oz. Then came Freud, who sent ladies on fantastic voyages through their subconscious without leaving their therapists' couches. Throw in the surrealism of Dr. Seuss and James Thurber, and you have Nancy Wright's Cherchez Dave Robicheaux, the odyssey of an agoraphobic Hoosier housewife who hallucinates a phantasmagorical trip to Louisiana to find the eponymous hero of her favorite novels. The playwright tries to pull off a precarious balancing act and for the first half-hour succeeds splendidly. Her heroine's madcap misadventures include a series of outrageous crimes with a new-age Bonnie Parker. But by the second act, it all comes crashing to earth with a deadly thud.

Actresses Kat McIntosh and Cat Kenney should be lauded for their brilliant juggling of psychotic non sequiturs while pulling off a feminist variation of Abbott and Costello.

First-time director Denise Astorino has taken on a work that needs the whip of an assured ringmaster, rather than the hand of a promising novice. Once again, Red Hen has shown itself to be too tough a bird to timidly hide in the henhouse, even when the sky is falling.

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