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Playing Politics
Juno and the Paycock. By Sean O'Casey. Directed by Giles Havergal. Produced by the American Conservatory Theater. Starring Robin Pearson Rose, Charles Dean, Kathleen Kaefer, and Geoff Hoyle. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through Feb. 7. Call 749-2ACT.

Marie and Bruce. By Wallace Shawn. Directed by John Wilkins. Produced by the Last Planet Theater. Starring Tiffany Hoover, Richard Reinholdt, and Tori Hinkle. At the Adeline Street Theater, 3280 Adeline (at Alcatraz), Berkeley, through Feb. 7. Call (510) 841-7649.

Sean O'Casey was a red-blooded worker alive at the birth of the Irish Republic, and after striking for trade unionism and fighting for independence he wrote a trilogy of plays that ends with Juno and the Paycock. It's set in the Civil War -- Free-Staters shooting at Republican Die-Hards over the geography of Ireland -- which started in 1922 and hasn't really ended. No observer could look at Dublin in those days and not be political (especially not O'Casey), but his sense of scope is what made his stuff worthwhile. He knew that politics belongs in the theater as far as it affects people's lives, and by focusing on the lives themselves he turned Juno into that rare thing, a good political play.

Out of context, though, it's weird. Why show Juno now? The story is topical, maybe dated, and full of Irish cliches. There's drinking, singing, nagging, praying, pregnancy, accents, Catholicism. A director could easily ruin this show by overemphasizing its Irishness, and Giles Havergal's ACT production sometimes flirts with ruin. All told, though, except for some flat patches and blisters, it's a nicely balanced success.

Capt. Boyle is a shiftless old no-'count of an Irish drunk who comes into an inheritance, and his long-suffering wife, Juno, has to watch the hope this money brings to their family go down like a setting sun. Boyle is the title's "paycock," or peacock, because he's so frivolous and proud; the goddess-name Juno tells us where O'Casey's sympathies lie. (The Captain shows classical hubris, but otherwise no Olympian qualities.) Their son, John, has been shot to pieces in the recent war for independence from England, and their daughter, Mary, is involved with a lawyer named Bentham, a sensitive young snob who draws up the will that promises Capt. Boyle the inheritance.

Robin Pearson Rose plays Juno with a stern peasant sweetness, plain and cheerful, angry when she needs to be but also a little soft: The mean shrewishness of a tenement wife seems just beyond her range. She nags but never dares to lose the audience's sympathy by seeming overly cruel. "You know you're a bit hasty at times, Mary," Juno says to her daughter, after Mary's boyfriend has disappeared to England, "an' say things you shouldn't say." This is meant by O'Casey as a joke, but on opening night it didn't land.

Juno is utterly upstaged by Capt. Boyle, as she should be. Charles Dean plays him loud. Tall and blustery, white-haired, with a hooting bellow when he's mad, he runs around the tenement with his shirttails out. The show seems to rely on him for energy, or on him and Joxer (Geoff Hoyle), his drinking "butty." Hoyle has clown experience and uses it to play Joxer as a cartoon of an Irish drunk, in bowler hat and dirty suit. He's a perfect cross between Shane MacGowan and Charlie Chaplin, but sometimes he pushes the shtick too hard and it just seems goofy, especially when Joxer's putting one over on the Captain.

Less entertaining are Margaret Schenck as an overbearing neighbor named Maisie Madigan; Gregory Ivan Smith as Bentham; and Robert Ernst as the very loud tailor. Bentham doesn't need to be the one-dimensional snob that Smith presents; and Schenck and Ernst seem to be doing shaky impressions of Irish people rather than playing roles.

Havergal shifts around some of O'Casey's stage directions both for better and worse; a small edit in a line of dialogue may be the most unusual. Near the end, when Mary lets her other would-be husband, Jerry, know she's pregnant, he says, "My God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that?" This is harsh to sensitive ears, but Mary answers it well. In this production all we get is, "My God, Mary," and the nowhere reply: "Yes, Jerry, as you say, My God." Not quite the same effect. What's wrong with the original line? Why pull that particular tooth?

Other critics have noticed Havergal's double Madonna-with-child allusion in the final scene: Juno holding her shot-up son and Boyle holding Joxer, drunk. It's eloquent, and funny, and Rose and Dean play their central roles well to the very end. But I don't think the curtain is cathartic. Rose's delivery feels as plain and safe in grief as it does in anger, honest but unbarbed, and the politics that kill Juno's son may be too far removed from San Francisco for the show to end with the heavy emotion that must have chimed through the Abbey Theater on its premiere.

So why are we seeing it? What's Havergal trying to say? There's nothing wrong with staging shows on a whim, but it's never that simple with the ACT. I suspect Artistic Director Carey Perloff wanted Juno on this year's list because it has a tough heroine, like Hecuba. That was another performance with strong lead players but oatmealish undertones. Juno's certainly a heroine for the ages, a suffering Mother Courage of the Dublin streets; but I imagine in her own day she had a little more grit.

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