Riders to the Sea and The Shadowy Waters | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Riders to the Sea and The Shadowy Waters 

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Riders to the Sea and The Shadowy Waters, at Transient Theatre. For six years on and off--at W.B. Yeats's suggestion--John Synge lived among the people of the Aran Islands. The experience made him. His best plays--In the Shadow of the Glen, Playboy of the Western World, and Riders to the Sea--are set there. Each rich work is so steeped in the language and lore of the islands that even when these Irish peasants are played by actors of limited range with imperfect dialect, as they are in Transient Theatre's flawed version of Synge's lyrical tragedy Riders to the Sea, enough survives to make the experience satisfying.

But then the story of Riders to the Sea--about a long-suffering fisherman's wife whose sons are killed one by one by the relentless sea--is a good one. And Synge's pitch-perfect ear for authentic dialogue guarantees that even the most American accent will sound, for a line or two, like Gaelicized English.

Would that Yeats had taken the advice he gave to Synge. He might have written a play worth watching rather than the stiff, pompous, leaden one-act The Shadowy Waters, which shares the bill with Synge's short masterpiece. Written and performed when Yeats was in his late 30s, The Shadowy Waters seems like the work of a writer a third that age.

The play concerns a half-mad pirate king looking for a beautiful queen to bring with him to the other side of the world. His crew, on the other hand, just want to go home--as do we, once it becomes clear that for all the gassy speeches, bad poetry, and fumbled attempts at Wagnerian myth making, this play is going nowhere--and taking its sweet time getting there. --Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Adam Richer.

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