Along with being the Playboy of the Western World, Cody Nickell can count himself the current ruler of the Central Coast. As the eye of J.M. Synge’s dramatic storm in Shakespeare Santa Cruz’ production of Playboy, Nickell is a hyper-kinetic bundle of intelligence, sex appeal, body language and sensitive character development. Kudos to director Robert Moss for launching Nickell’s electrifying performance as an underclass Irishman, whose tale of murdering his father becomes grist for village gossip, mischief and transformation. To Moss also goes credit for the brisk pacing and intricate stagecraft that illuminate Synge’s haunting text. Ah, but I’m thinking that it was a wee bit difficult to decipher all of the densely-accented dialogue. . . .
Dense or not, those lilting accents were flawless, thanks to dialect coach Christine Adaire.The earthy textures, lines and tones of B.Modern’s costumes placed the action squarely in another time and place. The setting was a small masterpiece of economy and authenticity, and save for a large central table, seemed perfect to allow for the free-flow of action. Kudos to Erik Flatmo.
Playboy of the Western World, exactly one hundred years old this year, is as dated a choice for SSC as it is eerily contemporary. The wild antics of rural villagers — and believe me, not an Irish cliché has been overlooked by this Irish playwright — threaten occasionally to turn the dark commentary into an Irish jig. But thanks to crafty ensemble acting — and especially the last-minute transformation of Nickell’s “playboy” — the drama ultimately makes its sobering point. Indelibly.
There’s much poetry in Sygne’s glorious dialogue, but in the end this play is a choice commentary on the fickleness of the mob – of how each celebrity of the moment is shaped, and crushed, by the needs of others. Nickell’s character is every overnight star who awakes to find himself suddenly famous, and then struggles to live up to what others have made of him.
The cast is led from start to finish by the irrepressible Nickell, who shows himself, at the end of the day, more than up to the darker moods of Synge’s cautionary tale. Along the way the cast has a stompin’ good time portraying the fears, hypocrisies, lusts, loneliness and superstitions of a cultural backwater. Every single performance is fine, but notable is the marvelous Kate Norris who shows that she can hold the stage even when not relying on her considerable stockpile of tricks. Ditto Paul Whitworth, who is having more fun than is legal in his wily reprobate’s guise. Always wonderful, Mike Ryan is remarkable in his thankless role as the one who doesn’t get the girl. And Genevieve Elam, as the rough-hewn barmaid heroine, comes close to a match for Nickell. Special moments of comic elegance gleam from the hands and body of Ian Scott McGregor, as one of a band of perennially tipsy farmhands.
The play is simultaneously wonderful, mesmerizing and yet hard to love. But the roughly two-hour-long production hugely rewards its Shakespeare Santa Cruz audiences.
Playboy of the Western World, by J.M. Synge runs through September 2 at the Theatre Arts Mainstage. Check the SSC website for times and reservations.