November 7, 2003





Telegraphing a tragic ending


Sometimes a set piece can say too much. Trefoni Michael Rizzi has constructed a doozy for this revival of Brian Friel's "Translations": an oversized map of the Northern Irish region where Gaelic speakers are about to face forced Anglicization by edict of an awakening empire.


Unrolling over most of an otherwise naturalistic barn set, where the O'Donnell family runs a renegade "hedge school"--essentially a more erudite version of home-schooling, circa 1833--Rizzi's map makes for a disconcertingly abstract playing area.


Worse, it over-determines the play's tragic destination. Characters may talk dreadfully about fate, but even with a tragedy an audience needs to suspend disbelief that there's a fighting chance against it.


This defeated tone infects the rest of an otherwise fine, mostly well-acted production. Friel's mythical town of Ballybeg is the sort of place where a child christened in the first act will have a wake by the third--and where the Greek-quoting headmaster, Hugh Mor O'Donnell (Jack Conley), will use both occasions as an excuse to get roaring drunk.


Standing in the face of such crushing odds are Hugh's sons, saintly farmhand Manus (a touching Scott Damian) and glad-handing Owen (Jarret LeMaster), who's on the British payroll as a translator. Owen brings with him a romantic English cartographer (engaging, Roddy McDowall-ish Matt Lutz) who falls in love with Ireland--or, more specifically, with milkmaid Maire (Maria Lay). And what good can come o' that, I ask ye?


In short, Friel's elegiac play would benefit from a less elegiac, awe-struck production. Director Marianne Savell's loving care is evident in every painstaking detail--Carolyn Lancet's rustic costumes, Bill E. Kickbush's overachieving lighting. What's missing is a sense that this lost, lamented Gaelic world is more than a doomed relic. The map says: Forget about it.

Rob Kendt


"Translations," Actors Co-Op, 1760 N. Gower, Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 14. $22. (323) 462-8460. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.