Presented by Bad Habit Productions
by Brian Friel
directed by M. Bevin O’Gara
Review by Gillian Daniels
Cultural erasure and the silencing power of colonialism—Translations is not a play that minces words. It’s a tragedy of linguistics. During the 19th century, the English army seeks to map out the Irish countryside, specifically the town of Baile Beag. In order to have unified names for the maps they draw, the soldiers end up Anglicizing the Gaelic names of rivers, roads, and mountain ridges. Staged by Bad Habit Productions, this play rages at the disappearance of local tradition in the name of Imperialism.
Hugh (Stephen Cooper) runs Baile Beag’s prominent school, a place where his largely adult students learn from Homer, Pliny, and Virgil. He’s utterly thrown at the idea that he should offer English along with Latin so that his Gaelic-speaking students can have more opportunities in a changing world. Maire (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard), for example, has her eyes set on migrating to Brooklyn. Her requests are sidetracked when Hugh’s favorite son, Owen (Matthew Barrett), returns from his profitable business in Dublin with two English soldiers, the strict Captain Lancey (an excellent Bob Mussett) and the much more malleable Lieutenant Yolland (Patrick Varner, who plays his part with a great deal of excitability). They have been sent to unify the names of the town in order to print an accurate map. Fittingly, the soldiers have re-named Owen “Roland” due to an error, which he takes in stride.
As Gaelic names are washed away from the surrounding townships, so are the myriad of stories that they carry. Yolland, who has begun to fall in love with Ireland and Maire, panics.
Despite the enormously sad story, the play has a number of light bits: Maire and Yolland’s attempt to bridge their language gap in order to exchange romantic endearments but fail hilariously; Jimmy Jack (Kevin Fennessy) is madly in love with the goddess Athena; Doyalty (Greg Maraio in a wholeheartedly charming performance) is convinced he can discourage the cartographers by stealing their survey equipment. Even characters who would otherwise be sidelined, like the gossiping Bridget (Gillian Mackay-Smith) or mute Sarah (Margaret Clark), are well-rounded. They define a vibrant and sometimes flawed community struggling against a changing era.
The play is very clear that their way of life is the victim of a great injustice. Yolland, an outsider, is portrayed as sympathetic to their lifestyle, but characters like the far more pragmatic Manus (Gabriel Graetz) are skeptical over what good he can do against the machinations of the British Empire.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara has put forth a strong effort. The play drags in some sections, pushing for atmosphere as the audience waits to see what happens next. Brian Friel’s play is fascinating, but I thought Sarah’s muteness hammers in its themes a bit too firmly. But the characters and their unique patter are never boring. It’s an anguished bit of history tinted with color and intelligence. For fans of history and those interested in the ravaging power of colonialism, Translations is a somber and engrossing show.