Saturday, December 24, 2011

Going Native in "Dancing at Lughnasa" and "Blood and Gifts"

To get my final theater fix of the year before leaving town for a much needed year end holiday, I bypassed the recent disappointments on Broadway and headed Off Broadway to experience two wonderful plays - the 20th anniversary revival of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa at The Irish Repertory Theatre and J.T. Rogers' Blood and Gifts at Lincoln Center Theater.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a touching memory play about five impoverished sisters - the rigid Kate, humorous Maggie, nurturing Agnes, simple Rose, and youthful Chris - during a period when their lives are about to change forever. To escape for a few minutes, the women lose themselves in the music flowing from their barely functional radio. Blood and Gifts is a fast paced piece about a US CIA agent (Jim Warnock) who works with the ISI - Pakistan intelligence - to funnel weapons and funds to Afghanistan to aid in their war against Soviet invasion and occupation.

Now, both plays could not be more different. Dancing at Lughnasa takes place in 1936 Ireland and touches on themes such as poverty, women's rights, industrialization, and religion (including excommunication). Blood and Gifts, which takes place in 1981 - 1991, is political, topical and very personal for those who will never forget the attacks on the World Trade Centers. However, as I listened to a WNYC interview about Blood and Gifts, I realize that both plays touch on the idea of "going native".

In Dancing at Lughnasa, the Mundy sisters also deal with the return of their older brother - a Catholic priest who has been performing missionary work at a leper colony in Uganda Africa. Because Father Jack has begun to subscribe to some of the pagan ways of the lepers, he has been sent back to Ireland by the Catholic Church - essentially excommunicated. His sister, a teacher at the Catholic School, guilty by association, is also rejected. In Blood and Gifts, Afghan (not Afghani) Saeed, son of mujahideen warlord Abdullah Khan, has an obsession with American culture, especially the music and if he had his way - the women. There is a general fear that he may "go native". While the theme is subtle in Blood and Gifts, it is very clear in Dancing at Lughnasa and the Mundys' lives are never the same again.

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