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Theatre Banshee's 'Brendan' problematic, but with potential

Theatre Banshee's exploration of immigrant experience lacks focus.

July 18, 2013|By Lynne Heffley | By Lynne Heffley

The immigrant experience in the United States is as varied as each individual who leaves family, friends and a familiar culture to forge a new life in a strange land. Yet not everything is left behind.

In the West Coast premiere of "Brendan," a potentially effective but problematic production at Theatre Banshee in Burbank, one young contemporary Irish immigrant in New York still carries baggage containing grief, guilt, isolation — and a recent addition: the ghost of his dead mother.

On the black box Banshee stage, courtesy of set designer Arthur MacBride, shelves stacked with boxes, presumably filled with immigrant case files, are flanked on either side by low-slung lamps and folding chairs where cast members sit when not appearing in the play's nearly three dozen short scenes. Costume designer Michéle Young's character-identifying wardrobe pieces — jackets, shirts, coats, shawls — hang on hooks. Shoes and props lie under chairs and on stacks of boxes.

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As individually titled scenes shift in time and from place to place — New York streets, apartments, cars, a place of work, a bar, jail cell, courthouse, car lot, a prostitute's room — this inward-looking exploration by Irish playwright Ronan Noone revolves around Brendan (Patrick Quinlan), forced by heartbreak, despair and a loving but domineering mother to make a fresh start in New York. Five years in, haunted by his past, barely assimilated and drinking too much, Brendan learns in scene one, "Mammy's Gone," that his mother has died.

(A nice touch here from director McKerrin Kelly to underscore Brendan's isolation and confusion: Cast members become pedestrians on a busy street, brushing past the Irishman as if he isn't there, lamps set swinging to enhance the impression of a life in turmoil.)

The severing of that complex matriarchal cord sends Brendan reeling, as does the appearance of his mother's nagging spirit (stalwart Kathleen M. Darcy hitting just the right notes of bullying affection and exasperation).

Brendan's insecurity as an outsider extends to the language. Although he speaks English, he doesn't speak "American." Petrol is gas, things aren't "grand, they're awesome," and his polite "will you accompany me" sets him apart as odd. Indeed, Brendan confides to the audience, he quit waiting tables and started painting houses when he no longer wanted to earn big tips from "the Yanks" by entertaining them with his accent and feeling like a clown.

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