The Chestertown Spy
November 8, 2018 by
Brendan Behan's The Hostage, currently playing at Church Hill Theatre, is a rowdy, irreverent look at an Irish pub and brothel in mid-20th century Dublin. Filled with drunks, rebels, prostitutes, and the occasional innocent, the play is a wild document of a time when imagination was hard-pressed to keep up with reality.
The Hostage is an expansion, in English, of a one-act play in Gaelic (the Irish Celtic language) by Behan, which debuted in Dublin in 1958. The author translated it into English for performance at Joan Littleton's Theatre Workshop at Royal Stratford East later that same year. The Royal Stratford performance involved a good deal of improvisation, which Behan incorporated into the script for subsequent productions in London and on Broadway.
Behan, born in 1923 to a family strongly committed to Irish independence, was a prolific writer, with novels, short stories and poetry in both English and Gaelic to his credit. He joined the Irish Republican Army at age 16, and spent time in prison both in England and Ireland on account of his activities. Released in 1946 as part of a general amnesty, he spent the early 1950s in Paris, where he matured as a writer. With the production of his play The Quare Fellow in 1954 - which opened on Broadway the following year - he became an international celebrity, moving to New York and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, and the young Bob Dylan. Poor health, exacerbated by years of heavy drinking, led to his death in 1963.
As with much Irish literature, The Hostage runs the gamut from broad comedy to political commentary to heartbreak. The characters frequently break into song and dance - assisted by an on-stage pianist - with numbers ranging from music-hall favorites to IRA anthems to bawdy parody. It's an overwhelming two-hours-plus experience, made even headier by the thick Irish dialect adopted by the actors.
The plot is simple: Pat, who runs the pub, is a former IRA commander who still has ties to the movement. Prime among them is an elderly IRA officer known as Monsewer who actually owns the property. In response to the scheduled execution of a young IRA soldier in Belfast, the IRA kidnaps a young English soldier who is brought to the house as a hostage. The action takes place in the afternoon and evening of one day.
Director Pat Patterson recounts his own experience in an early 1970s production of the play, when tensions between the English and Irish were on the rise. The program book also includes a brief history of the conflict between the two nations by John Haas, and a glossary of some of the unfamiliar terms and references in the script. It's both helpful and interesting and I suggest reading it either before or after seeing the play.
The play has a large cast, with 15 characters including Kelly the pianist, a role shared by Julie Lawrence and Philip Dutton. (Lawrence took the role the night we saw the play.) Randy Welch, offstage for most of the production, provides bagpipe music for Monsewer.
Christopher Wallace plays Pat, the hard-drinking caretaker of the house. He is in some ways the moral center of the play, especially toward the end where he shows himself a good bit more humane than the fanatical nationalists around him. A member of the CHT board, Wallace has appeared in a number of productions - this is definitely one of his best performances yet.
Pat's consort Meg is played by Christine Kinlock, most recently seen in Earl Lewin's Hitched. Meg is the practical inn- and brothel-keeper who sees life clearly. Unlike her man and fellow innkeeper Pat, she is no longer full of dreams of past and future glory in the Irish Resistance. Though still an Irish patriot, she is very aware of day-to-day realities. She wants the rent paid! Yet Meg is still sympathetic, especially to young lovers. Kinlock brings out all these qualities very nicely. This represents a different kind of role than Kinlock usually plays and she definitely rises to the occasion.
Herb Ziegler returns to the Church Hill stage in the role of Monsewer, the kilted, bagpipe-playing former IRA officer who owns the house and is just a little touched in the head. He slowly marches into and out of the room, turning precise military corners and "reviewing " the house's residents as if they were his platoon. It's a character that could easily be overplayed, but Ziegler nicely balances the absurdity of the character with the serious political viewpoint he represents. His name, actually a title/nickname, is a satiric mispronunciation of the French honorific "monsieur". And in another clearly intentional ironic twist, the Irish patriot character Monsewer is actually English born and bred. There's no zealot like a convert! It's good to see Herb back on the boards!
The hostage after whom the play is named, an English soldier named Leslie Williams, is played by Max Hagan. Making his CHT debut. Hagan is convincing as the innocent victim of political gamesmanship, and he deploys a Cockney accent effectively - never quite surrendering clarity to authenticity. A nice job - let's hope he returns to CHT often.
Maya McGrory is well cast as Teresa, the young maid who falls in love with the hostage Leslie. Petite and blonde, she looks perfect for the part of the orphaned country lass who gives her heart to the captured enemy soldier. Still a Queen Anne's High School junior, McGrory has been a regular CHT cast member. She conveys shyness, sweetness, and innocence—or as much innocence as a maid in brothel can have. An excellent job.
Hester Sachse, executive director of CHT, takes to the stage as an overbearing social worker, Miss Gilchrest - and does a fine job in the part. She amusingly handles the transition from the character's stiff-necked peddling of shallow pieties to her considerably looser persona after she's had a few pints of Guinness.
Howard Messick, also fresh from an appearance in Hitched, is cast as Mr. Mulleady, a civil servant who spends most of his time in the brothel. Paul Briggs is quite convincing as a fanatical IRA officer who brings the prisoner to the house. Charles Michael Moore and Kellan Paddy are cast as a gay couple, Rio Rita and Princess Grace, who liven the stage with bawdy song and dance - including "We're Here Because We're Queer. " They're wittily sarcastic and dressed to the nines in sexy styles in bright colors.
Natalie Lane, in her first role at CHT, and Michelle Christopher, who has stage-managed numerous plays at the theater, play two of the prostitutes, Collette and Ropeen. They saunter around the stage in sexy, skimpy bustiers and negligees, the perfect image of world-weary prostitutes who have seen it all. Eamon Murphy, a graduate of the CHT Green Room Gang, does a good job as an IRA soldier sent to guard the hostage, and Troy Strootman, last seen on the CHT stage in Biloxi Blues, has an amusing part as a drunken Russian sailor.
Ordinarily, I might complain about some of the singers being a bit out of tune at times, but in the context of this play it's exactly right - in fact, if they sounded too professional it'd undercut the effect. The Irish accents are thick enough that it's sometimes hard to follow the dialogue. But it's well worth listening - there's plenty of meat underneath the colorful exterior.
All of the action takes place in one large barroom, with a stairway leading up to various rooms. However, a bed in the center of the stage represents the room where Leslie is kept. It's a comparatively simple set, which the production makes good use of. Kudos to set designer Michael Whitehill.
On the whole, The Hostage is an exhilarating experience, with a talented cast delivering a script that ranges from the scurrilous to the poetic - sometimes hitting both extremes in a matter of moments. In the tradition of Irish writers from Johnathan Swift to James Joyce, the play is at once hilarious and deeply serious about the contradictions of human nature, especially as it manifests itself in the struggle for freedom.
The Hostage runs through Nov. 18, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students - though the play's language and subject matter may not be suitable for very young students. For more information or to make reservations, call 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website.