Between the Door and the Sea: The Story of Yeats' Cuchulain | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Between the Door and the Sea: The Story of Yeats' Cuchulain


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Arc Entertainment Group

at Neo-Futurarium

Long before Ulster became infamous for sectarian murder and martyrs, it knew the slaughter of Celtic warriors attacking one another's stony forts. Raising that bloodshed to the level of legend, unknown bards forged the myth of Cuchulain, a physically perfect, irresistibly powerful superhero who charged into battle in brightly colored raiment and glowing jewelry, bristling hair shining in the sun.

Born of the sun and a mortal woman, Cuchulain was an effortless and ruthless Iron Age fighter. He could also traffic with the witches and ghosts of the Otherworld (as well as the many mortal women drawn to him). His exploits (compiled in the 12th-century manuscript The Book of the Dun Cow and later sources) taught young Celtic noblemen a rapacious warrior creed. If his myth was inspired by an actual killer, it soon incarnated a violent era's battle ethic.

When Ireland later faced an equally primitive struggle--the 1916 Rebellion and the ensuing civil war--it seemed right that a modern bard, William Butler Yeats, would revive the tales of the "Hound of Ulster." Yeats wrote three chronologically linked one-acts based on these legends for Lady Gregory's Abbey Theatre, which played a major role in rekindling interest in Ireland's pagan past after it opened in 1904. These works are rich with gorgeous cadenced verse that combines the force of prophecy with the pathos of an elegy--rhapsodic, if occasionally dense and cryptic. On Baile's Strand, the earliest and best known, premiered in 1904; The Only Jealousy of Emer in 1922; and The Death of Cuchulain in 1939, the year of Yeats's death. All three rarely seen poem plays have been revived by Arc Entertainment Group, the company's ambitious first production.

On Baile's Strand, a portrait of a family's self-destruction, inevitably recalls Oedipus Rex. Unwittingly completing a curse, Cuchulain tragically agrees to circumscribe his power by swearing an oath to obey the edicts of Ireland's King Conchubar. One order is to fight a young man who has terrorized the kingdom. Seeing in the boy a family resemblance, Cuchulain for once resists the urge to kill, but his oath compels him. Then realizing he has killed his own son by his lost love Queen Aoife, Cuchulain attacks the ocean in an abject rage. Providing tedious comic relief are the clownish antics of a Fool and a Blind Man, Yeats's less-than-ribald attempt to give a common touch to uncommon heroics.

In The Only Jealousy of Emer Cuchulain is rescued from death by the sacrifice of his dogged wife Emer. Shown by the trickster Bricriu an image of Cuchulain's spirit being seduced by a woman from the Otherworld, Emer agrees to renounce his love, a costly lie that breaks a death spell.

In The Death of Cuchulain the hero achieves victory in battle but defeat at the hands of the now-aged Aoife. Emer defends him by slaying six of his enemies, but it's too late: his head was cut off as a souvenir by the Blind Man. After the death goddess Morrigu takes his spirit to the Celtic Valhalla, Yeats's chorus compares Cuchulain to the heroes of the 1916 battle at the Dublin post office, where the first blood of the Rebellion was shed (and suddenly this saga sounds a bit like propaganda).

Erica Luketic's 90-minute staging--with its smoky fog, ethereal folk music, and impressionistic lighting--is intended to convey the ease with which the legend's hero can move from the real world to the spirit realm. But it would be nice if the nine actors could manage a clean journey through Yeats's ornate verse. Too many of them, including Dejan Avramovich's Conchubar, founder because of a tentative, half-hearted recitation; their hesitation makes you wonder how well they grasp, let alone feel, their language.

Brian Amidei at least brings confidence to his blustering Cuchulain (if not the muscular presence the legend demands); his deft impersonation of the shape-shifting Bricriu is even more accomplished. Patricia Gallagher makes much of Aoife's final confrontation with her lost hero. Most committed to Yeats's imagery is Danielle Brothers, who plays Emer from the inside out with a lyricism as lush as her lines.

A small but constant problem is the set's clashing cloth pieces, the clutter of which impedes the action and the scene changes.

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