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Theatre: Hitting and missing the mark at the Fringe

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BERNARDA’S HOUSE: Clare Barrett and Amy Conrroy. Photo: Carla Rogers

BERNARDA’S HOUSE: Clare Barrett and Amy Conrroy. Photo: Carla Rogers

BERNARDA’S HOUSE: Clare Barrett and Amy Conrroy. Photo: Carla Rogers

In Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, the embittered widow has five daughters, all of them fixated on the village boy Pepe el Romano. The eldest, 39-year-old Angustias, daughter of her mother's first husband, has a dowry left by her father. So Pepe chooses to marry her, while carrying on a secret affair with 20-year-old Adela, the youngest of the four daughters of Bernarda's second husband.

Director Veronica Coburn admits that her re-imagined Bernarda's House (Dowager Productions at Project for the Tiger Fringe Festival) ) has a couple of points of difference from the original. In fact, it's an entirely different play, in which Angustias has become the daughter of a secret fling which Bernarda had as a 16- year-old with the handsome illegitimate son of her nurse Poncia; but he, a servant, is not acceptable as a husband in the strict hierarchy of village life. (In the original, Poncia and Bernarda are the same age, and Poncia is respectably married with a string of children.)

But Coburn creates her own exposition of Bernarda's early life as the trigger for the cruelty she imposes on her five daughters, her immuring of them in her house for an eight-year mourning period following the death of her loathed husband.

Bernarda's House begins with Clare Barrett as a six-year-old mischievous Bernarda wrapping the doting Poncia around her little finger; it moves on to the seemingly inevitable crescendo of a shotgun marriage to an old man who disgusts her, solely to avoid the shame of her illegitimate pregnancy. And her husband avenges himself by conceiving his own four daughters by marital rape.

As played by Barrett and Amy Conroy as Poncia, it is a play fairly independent of Lorca's pre-occupations (apart from Bernarda's defiant claim, after the pregnant Adela's despairing suicide, that "my daughter died a virgin."). But it is nonetheless unutterably moving in its impact, and the two actors are a joy to watch, their intensity disguised as playfulness, and coming into its talented own as they melt into dour horror and vengeance, even if you question what appears to be a reference to 1970s extreme feminist mantra that "all sex (between men and women) is rape."

While it's possible to regard as bizarre the notion of bodhran-playing as a university subject (folk/traditional culture is, after all, supposed to be instinctive and spontaneous), a performer expert enough to do the teaching probably has something to say. But oddly, in the case of Brian Fleming in A Sacrilegious Lesbian and Homosexual Parade, what he has to say is not about traditional music, either per se or even in passing, but about the Ancient (pun intended) prejudice in New York against the participation of LGBT people in the St. Patrick's Day parade.

The parade is no longer controlled by that bastion of right-wing conservatism the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but the ethos has prevailed, and in a quirky and atmospheric piece, Fleming documents with barbed humour his own participation in the "fight back": The St. Pat's For All Parade (led this year by Miss Panti Bliss) which has been picketed and spat upon, demonstrated against, and had remarkably inventive curses called down upon it in the 15 years of its existence.

The title of the piece (at the New Theatre for the Fringe Festival) comes from one of the many banners along the sidewalks, and the parade's glorious mix is exemplified by Fleming's own experience in Paddy Reilly's bar on 35th Street, where the (Italian-American) Irish fiddler Tony Demarco has belligerent doubts about Fleming's qualification to strike up a tune.

It's fun; it makes its point; and it's directed by Raymond Keane.

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Hitting the Mark is what you do in a TV studio: making sure you stand in the right spot. It's the title of a Ramblinman production at Smock Alley for the Fringe Festival; but it's difficult to see how it belongs there. Cillian and Sean Tadhg O Gairbhi have written the sort of comedy that's so far out of date it seems to be meeting itself coming back.

Eamonn's a struggling actor; his flatmate Ray is a fitness fanatic who sees no reason to try to find a job. Trish is an up-and-coming playwright spotted by a down-and-out American TV producer Greg, who wants (in 2014) to re-create the RTE soap Glenroe with the characters brought up to date as flamboyantly as possible, with Susan Slott (who plays a jokily psychotic version of herself) re-creating her Glenroe role of Shirley Manning. He wants Trish to write it, and he wants Eamonn to play in it; the reason isn't exactly clear.

The piece seems to be aimed at a rural audience over the age of 50 (people who remember and feel nostalgic about Glenroe). It's also scripted to appeal to people who think theatre should only be cosy and family-oriented: there's a lot of sniggering at experiment and method acting. Except that the sniggering doesn't come off: the humour is heavy-handed and the reference points are from the 1950s.

The best bits are supposed conference calls on screen with actors Alan Stanford and Gerard Byrne, (the latter to cross from Fair City and be re-incarnated in his Father Malachy role, ignoring the fact that in the city soap, he had long left the priesthood). Full marks to the two actors for agreeing to send themselves up as they're interviewed about joining the revamped show. The downside is that their experienced professionalism is inclinedd to show up the inadequacies on stage.

But overall, this piece strains heavily at the seams, leadenly directed by Aaron Monaghan, and played without conviction or much credibility by Clare Monnelly. Cillian O'Ghairbhi, Karl Quinn and Kevin Shackleton.

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Two years ago, Shaun Dunne, then 22 years old, wrote a delightful play called Death of the Tradesmen, which was produced by Talking Shop Ensemble. It was imaginative, elegiac, creative and quietly dramatic. With his Advocacy, one can only write: how the mighty have fallen.

Utterly well-meant, utterly worthwhile, on an undeniably important social topic, Dunne and the same production team have produced a serious bummer in dramatic terms (at Project for the Fringe Festival.)

It's a classroom exercise: quite literally. The cast play out role-playing as an empowerment tool in a supposed centre for people with intellectual disability. It all begins with a jargon-laden "lecture" to the audience on how stupidly insensitive we all are, and this is going to teach us how to empathise with other people's social problems.

Unfortunately we end up wondering about the point of it all: the dead jargon and politically correct mumbo-jumbo shrivel the exercise into nothingness, and you're left doubting the effectiveness of such social programmes and how and why they are funded and administered.

If this "exercise" proves anything it's that "dramatic role-play" is a million miles from reality: the only moment that rings true in this classroom complacency is when a character says "the thing about assertion is that it's hard sometimes."

It's the "deadest" thing I've seen in a long time.

Sunday Independent