Heaven and Hunger, at 1st Irish Theater Festival

A Ukrainian play at an Irish theater festival?

It was one of the two plays I attended in the final weekend of the annual 1st Irish Festival, which on the surface seemed as opposite as their titles: “Hunger” had its one-time reading yesterday at the Irish Arts Center. “Heaven,” produced by the prominent Irish company Fishamble, ended its run today at 59E59. 

In “Heaven,”  middle-aged married couple Mal (Andrew Bennett) and Mairead (Janet Moran) return to her hometown in the midlands of Ireland to attend her sister’s wedding, where each has an encounter with a different wedding guest that brings into question the choice they made twenty years earlier to marry each other and have a family.  Mairead runs into her first love, and Mal into a young man that reactivates his homosexual attraction.

But I put this far more straightforwardly than the two characters do; than the playwright Eugene O’Brien does. The plot, such as it is, doesn’t get at the rich texture of the play, or its eccentric structure, or its cast of vivid characters, humorously described (not embodied), such as the best man, whose name is Declan, “but everyone calls him The Hobbit on account of his huge feet.”

Maired and Mal and Eugene are, after all, Irish storytellers.  

So Maired describes Breffni Grehan, the man she meets after three decades: “No holds barred full on first love straight out of the heart and the groin and feeling like I couldn’t fucking live without him.” 

And Mal names his young man Jesus, because (in Mal’s imagination) he fulfills the recurring homoerotic fantasy Mal had as an altar boy: “I walk up to Jesus. He looks down on me. I rise my hands up and touch his chest and I can feel the sweat and blood and I cry and somehow I’m able to lift him down, off the cross. His hands and arms encircle me. He looks into my eyes. I look into his. The most beautiful thing that I have ever seen. I have an erection. He reaches down and takes hold of me and starts to…. I close my eyes and I’m free, in my head, completely free and I cry out and… and….”

And playwright Eugene O’Brien presents their stories as a series of alternating monologues by Maired and Mal. This form constitutes almost a subgenre of Irish playwriting,  adopted by Brian Friel in “Molly Sweeney” and “Faith Healer”  (and after him, Elaine Murphy in “Little Gem” and Abbie Spallen in “Pumpgirl.”) “Heaven,” is a two-character play in which we never see Mal or Mairead interact with one another. This arguably fits thematically; we learn that lately they have had little to do with one another (nothing sexually for five years.) But it, along with the thick Irish accents,  requires a high level of attentiveness on the part of New York theatergoers (or at least this New York theatergoer.)

Why is the play called “Heaven”?  Mal at one point obliquely refers to his homosexual attractions as being “underneath,” which seems clearly the opposite of heaven. So perhaps  heaven is the compromise each made to live with one another, and – as we come to understand — to need one another.

Top photo left to right: Isaiah Dodo-Williams, Anne Guadagnino, Julian Abelskamp; bottom left: Alvin Christmas, Marina Vogtsberger; photo right: Una Clancy

Hunger could just as easily have been called Hell.  Written by Bohdan Boychuk, a Ukrainian-born New Yorker who died in 2017, the play is a poetic dramatization of what has come to be called the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians. Scholars debate whether this was the result of inept planning or intentional genocide, but “Hunger” leaves no doubt. The prologue features soldiers killing a farmer and stealing his grain, then shooting a teenage boy and raping his teenage girlfriend before shooting her too, then seizing the crucifix from a priest, and then hanging him from an apple tree.   This was all read as stage directions by Isaiah Dodo-Williams, as Marina Vogtsberger delivered plaintive poetry in Ukrainian (with English translation projected on a wall monitor) as “The Voice from the Crucifix.”

After the prologue, the play takes up with four characters, two of whom – a poet (Alvin Christmas) and an old woman (Una Clancy) – speak in Ukrainian. The focus is on the English-speaking duo, a young widowed mother (Anne Guadagnino) and a young man (Julian Abelskamp) who steals and gobbles up the potato she was saving for her child. 

“What do you need a baby for”? he says at one point. 
“Without children the world would be ugly and old.”
“It is ugly.”
They argue their differing world views as they slowly starve to death.

After the reading, director Emma Denson, who adapted “Hunger” with Maria Rewakowicz , explained why the play belonged in an Irish theater festival (elaborating on a note in the program):

“Ukraine’s story is Ireland’s story”  Both countries, she said, suffered a genocidal famine at the hands of an empire that was trying to eradicate a people, their culture and their language. “Ninety years after Holodomor took place, war erupted in Ukraine. This same week, I discovered a translation of Boychuk’s Hunger. “ She has adapted it in hopes of using it to raise relief funds. 

Marina Vogtsberger, who is Ukrainian, then spoke briefly, injecting a note of optimism to the grim proceedings: “It gives me hope because I know the darkest times can be overcome.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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