The Hunt for Red Willie, Irish Repertory, at Victory Gardens Theater. This should have been a programming hit. Irish Repertory, recovering from recent financial troubles, scored the U.S. premiere of Ken Bourke's Irish melodrama spoof, which has proved a popular holiday show at Dublin's acclaimed Abbey Theatre. But all the things that have earned Irish Rep its reputation--great production values, exacting direction, well-crafted performances--are curiously absent, turning this potential cash cow into an embarrassing liability.
Matt O'Brien's production literally gets off on the wrong foot. The first bit of stage business involves a hapless British officer tripping over the corpse of a freshly deceased British landowner frightened to death by the legendary demon Red Willie. But that overbroad, unconvincing trip--the physical-comedy equivalent of mugging--establishes a style so ham-handed that it obliterates whatever wit Bourke's fast-paced script might contain. For the ensuing two hours the six cast members alternately over- and underplay their parts, failing to conjure up a coherent stage world. As a result Bourke's farcical whodunit is neither intelligible nor funny.
But then it's difficult to know just how much humor a more careful production might have conveyed given the play's strained logic (anyone who gazes upon the mask of Red Willie dies of fright--except sometimes) and its dramatically irrelevant nods to various famous Irish plays.