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Making History

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Making History, Irish Repertory of Chicago, at Victory Gardens Theater. Playwright Brian Friel couldn't ask for better material than the life of 16th-century Gaelic rebel leader Hugh O'Neill. Named second earl of Tyrone by Queen Elizabeth, he quickly took up the cause of Irish resistance--even though he married the sister of the queen's marshal in Ireland. In 1593 he claimed the traditional Gaelic title of "the O'Neill" and in 1595 began leading his fellow chieftains and their clans in skirmishes with the British. Initial success was followed by a disastrous engagement at Kinsale in 1601. He spent his last years in exile in Rome, drunk and ruined.

Friel couldn't ask for a smarter, more careful cast than Irish Repertory's either, led by the dynamic, beguiling Nick Sandys as O'Neill: his lightning-fast shifts between unassuming charm and ferocious zealotry are mesmerizing. Why then were so many people around me nodding off as this two-act drama entered its third hour?

The answer is simple: Friel doesn't make history human. His characters can't seem to do anything without talking about it for 20 minutes first, and they spend most of their time arguing about political complications in terms that seem to have been plucked from a dramaturge's notebook rather than real life. O'Neill's marriage to Mabel, which might have given the play some emotional complications, is only sketched. With nothing to tug our hearts through the battlefield, this Irish insurrection seems a remarkably dry affair.

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