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Well-Versed in Yeats

Director Irene Connors, accustomed to the complexities of the Irish writer's dramas, is taking on 'Deirdre,' based on Celtic legend.


Hardly anyone stages the dramatic works of W. B. Yeats. They're loaded with Celtic mythology, poetic lyricism and thick symbolism. He tackled epic tales with complex plots--often condensing them into terse one-acts.

Let it never be said that Irene Connors doesn't like a challenge.

Connors, who is directing "Deirdre" at CalArts this weekend, has, in fact, directed 10 of the 26 plays penned by the Nobel laureate. While teaching at the University of Michigan, she founded the Yeats Theater Ensemble, and last year at CalArts she directed "Herne's Egg." She has not made it a goal, however, to direct them all.

"No," Connors said, "I'd never do that to myself."

Known as one of the best poets of the 20th century--"A Prayer for My Daughter" and "Sailing to Byzantium" are among his most famous works--Yeats was a leader in the Irish Renaissance. He was co-founder of the Irish National Theatre Society, which later became the renowned Abbey Theatre, and wrote plays throughout his career.

"There were expressions that he needed to realize that he couldn't do with poetry," said Connors, "so he went on to another form."

Even with a Yeats scholar at the helm, steering "Deirdre" toward the stage was no simple task. Though it's not written in verse, said production manager Mark McQuown, "You have to read it and reread it and reread it again before your ears can open to the music that's inherent in the play."

In Celtic legend, Deirdre, played by Bridget Connors, was intended to marry the much-older King Conchubar (pronounced Conohar), played by Roger Kern. She escaped with her lover, a young warrior named Naoise (Neesh-e), played by Ezra Weisz. After years in exile in Scotland, the couple was pardoned by the king and returned to Ulster--the north part of Ireland--only to find themselves victims of a revengeful trap, set by an unwitting messenger.

Yeats' play examines the critical hour of the lovers' return to Ulster and their meeting with the king. The broader story is relayed by the characters themselves and by a chorus of three musicians, whose songs prophesy the lovers' fate.

"It's hyper-concentrated," said Michael Jon Fink, who put Yeats' songs to music. Fink, who teaches composition at CalArts, also wrote music for brief interludes in the drama. The play is so intense, said Fink, that the audience needs some breathing room. His arrangements are for Baroque flute, Irish harp, percussion and toy piano--an item he picked up at a garage sale.

"We're not sticklers for stylistic authenticity," he said. "That doesn't mean we disregard inspiration from Celtic [sources]. . . . We haven't consciously said we're not going to let anything traditional in. But we did not seek to evoke some kind of authentic stylistic re-creation."

For artist Tom Lawson, who designed the production, that meant drawing on Yeats' imagery. To underscore bird symbolism, Lawson opens the show with a projection of a flock rising in flight. Sculpted masks, 7 feet tall, stand in for a menacing phalanx of soldiers.

Also critical, he said, was creating the feeling of twilight. "There's a continuation of hope, but also a sense of foreboding that is mingled in that twilight," said Lawson, who is dean of the CalArts School of Art.

This summer, the cast and crew of "Deirdre" plan to take their show to Scotland for the Fringe Festival, which runs concurrently with the Edinburgh International Festival. About 20 major music, opera and theater companies perform at the International Festival; 500 smaller groups take part in the Fringe.

Most performances are reviewed by the London newspapers, and for three weeks in August, Edinburgh is the center of the arts globe.

"Deirdre" has an invitation from Fringe organizers and a theater reserved, said Connors, but they still need to raise $50,000 for production and travel expenses.

Susan Solt, dean of the School of Theatre, said the Fringe has always represented cutting-edge energy in theater. "It doesn't mean that the plays have to be new," she said. "It's the point of view you take toward the work."

Taking a group from CalArts to the Fringe raises the college's profile outside Southern California, Solt said, while also showing this region that home-grown talent "can play in a place with the stature of Edinburgh." By June, they should know if they've raised enough money for the trip.

From there, who knows what could happen.

"If you're a success at the festival, or at the Fringe," Lawson said, "you can go on and take your show around the world."


* WHAT: "Deirdre."

* WHERE: Walt Disney Modular Theater, CalArts Campus, 24700 McBean Parkway, Santa Clarita.

* WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: $7 general admission, $2 for students.

* CALL: (805) 253-7800.

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