- By Brendan Behan
- Directed by Mark Rhea
- Produced by The Keegan Theatre
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The thing to understand about this wonderful production of The Hostage is that it begins as a comedy and ends as a tragedy. This same thing might be said about Irish theater as a whole, or life in general.
Or it might be fairer to say that The Hostage begins as a musical – like one of those House Party -type musicals that used to be so popular on TV in the early seventies. (“Ladies and Gentlemen, Gank the Wank,” says Pat, the genial impresario, [Dave Jourdan, as good as I’ve ever seen him] as a drunk banjo player [Daniel Steinberg] wanders on stage, and we all applaud.) Or, if you were lucky enough to grow up Irish, it’s like the front parlor of your Uncle Pat’s house on any weekend.
Let me explain about Pat. Bombastic, red-faced with drink, gimpy from an alleged war wound he only vaguely describes, he operates a teetering boarding house populated mostly by women – and one man – of easy virtue, who pay the rent (and occasionally buy a case of Guinness) by plying their trade. The demented Monsewer (Kevin Adams) owns the place; Pat takes care of him and puts up with his ravings because Monsewer was once a great man, and Pat served under him during the Revolution.
The Hostage’s plot line is easy to summarize: it is 1958; the British have sentenced a young IRA soldier to death, and a humorless prig of an IRA officer (Colin Smith) has captured Leslie Williams (Joe Baker), a young British private as a hostage against the execution. If the IRA soldier is executed, so, too, will the Brit be, the IRA warns. And, in the meantime, they stash the bewildered young man in the parlor of Pat’s bawdy house.
Behan makes Pat carry the entire burden of Behan’s conception of the Irish character, and Jourdan is equal to the task. Pat loves to joke, and sing and play his guitar, and tell stories, and drink good whiskey, and his heart is as sweet and as soft as a caramel. But a terrible thing has happened to him, and to all Ireland for the previous eight hundred years: a hostile power has invaded his country, and occupied it with force of arms, slaughtering its young men, laying waste to its lands, emptying its treasury and destroying its culture, language and religion. Why, only yesterday, or forty-two years ago, British tanks had trained their turrets on Ashtown Road, running near to Pat’s house, and fired upon the old men and children who lived there. The Irish, bereft of comparable weapons or the resources to acquire them, respond the only way they know: with a song.
This song (“Ashtown Road”, whose lyrics are included in the program), and a dozen others (Jourdan is also the musical director) stud the two-hour-forty-minute production, which is otherwise characterized by the incompetent seductions of the ridiculous prostitutes, the most spectacular of whom is hairy-chested Rio Rita (Michael Innocenti), resplendent in a maroon see-through peignoir, and the lunatic couplings of Mr. Mulleady (Timothy Hayes Lynch) and his hyperChristian social-worker paramour, Miss Gilchrist (a hilarious Jane Petkofsky).
Developed through the improvisational techniques of Joan Littlefield’s Theater Workshop, which eventually produced Behan’s show, the success of these elements depends in part on the play’s ability to break the fourth wall and interact directly with the audience. Toward that end, the actors dance with the audience during lively songs, and challenge theatregoers to fetch them beer from the lobby during intermission. (In the production I attended, Pat responded to one such act of generosity by chugging an entire bottle of Guinness. It is good to see someone who hasn’t lost the abilities he had in college.) In homage to this improvisational spirit, Keegan has borrowed two characters from its fabulous production of Owen McCafferty’s Mojo/Mickeybo-the aforementioned Gank, and Harry Rip the Balls. To the kids in McCafferty’s play, they were legendary bullies and monsters, but we see who they really are after they’ve grown up: Gank, the town drunk, and Harry, an apparently unemployed gay man given to florid shirts.
All this goes on with a huge cast in high good humor, and at a riotous pace. Jourdan plays a mean guitar and captures all the melancholy of Ireland with his tin whistle. Susan Rhea, a fine actor, accompanies him superbly on piano except for one rococo number, which the gifted Innocenti plays. The songs are about love, and grief, and Ireland, and drink and the Church and death – in short, about the experience of being Irish in the last, or any other, century. They are so infectiously lively that it would be unnatural for the singers not to dance, so they whirl each other across the stage with fearsome abandon (Melissa-Leigh Douglass is responsible for the impeccable choreography). In such an atmosphere, it is easy to understand how the young hostage and the sweet-voiced maid (Carolyn Agan) could fall for each other. It is also easy to believe that the death threat which hangs over the hostage’s head is just a hallucination which wandered over from another play. Indeed, after the show’s 11 o’clock song – featuring a coterie of gay men with coconut-shell bras singing “We’re Here Because We’re Queer” – it is impossible to believe in anything other than a happy ending. I recommend, however, that you suspend your disbelief.
I regret to report that I did not find the performance of Sheri Herren as Pat’s common-law wife convincing. Aside from that, the show is terrific. Director Mark Rhea has done the best work I have ever seen him do. Without ever distracting us from the main story, actors in every dim corner of the stage deepen their character through motion and silent gesture. Brothers and sisters, that’s good theater.
- Running Time: 2:40 including two intermissions totaling twenty minutes.
- When: Thursdays through Sundays until March 29. Sunday shows are at 2 p.m.; all other shows are at 8.
- Where: Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC
- Tickets: $30. Call 703.892.0202 x 2 or email