3 stars out of 4
When writer and performer Savanna Rae was in college, she determined that the lives of the women of the Ulster Cycle must be reclaimed from centuries of subjection to male reinterpretation. The result was Daughters of Ire. To be fair, even in the earlier accounts, the women portrayed in Daughters of Ire are pretty badass, leading armies against foes, running a military academy, and grasping for self-determination in a world that, while progressive for its time, did not grant women that right. As Rae points out, their own achievements and abilities take a back seat to the men that slept with them. Rae is an engaging performer, and she gives it her all, but her script is sometimes hampered by her own backstory. Still, it is an often powerful and edifying 75-minute introduction to some women who deserve to be heard.
In keeping with Rae’s role as Seanachai (a Celtic storyteller), the stage is bare except for a few pieces of furniture, a trunk and a bloody dress whose importance will become clear later. The trunk reveals the trappings of the characters that Rae will portray as she tells their stories, the history of their stories, and her own connection to the material. The simple staging suits the script well and showcases Rae’s ability to transform herself into the women whose narratives she is excavating. Director Carin Silkaitis keeps the transitions between the characters and settings clear and ensures that each voice is clear and passionate, while injecting enough action to create the illusion of numbers in this one-woman marathon. While the script and the performance celebrate the women’s lives, some of the most powerful moments are those when they recognize how precarious their position is in the violent, volatile and very male dominated world they inhabit. Costume designers Jen Jackowski and Jhenai Mootz have assembled just enough pieces to transform storyteller into subject. The sound design by Ashley Pettit and Christine Kent’s composition help set the tone with Gaelic (or Gaelic-sounding) selections. Violence designer Chris Rickett deserves special notice for creating striking fight scenes that demonstrate the physical reality behind the continuous threat of violence.
Daughters of Ire ultimately belongs to Savanna Rae—despite the support from director and team, its success rests on Rae’s script and performance. As a performer, Rae is up to the task. She moves easily between characters and is an engaging raconteur. Many of her attempts to explain the genesis of the play benefit from her recognition of the differences in time and circumstance between her subjects and herself. However, there are times when she dwells long enough on her college experience to distract from her central thesis. For the most part, though, her narration helps provide the backdrop for the stories of the four women she becomes. Though the most famous of the women, Deirdre, closes the evening, Rae seems most drawn to the warriors she presents, who inspired fear in those around them by resorting to an unflinching determination to hold onto the power they had gained through sacrifice and brutality. Rae’s Queen Medb is the most complex of the characters, with the most clearly defined relationships and motivations. Rae begins by introducing the Queen Medb of legend before brushing this aside and revealing the depths of the tragedy that led to Medb’s relentless vendetta against the King of Ulster, her former husband (not by choice) Conchobar mac Nessa, and his champion Cu Chulainn, both heroes of the Ulster Cycle. As Medb schools Fergus, who has joined Medb in Connacht, on his part, it becomes abundantly clear why her subjects and enemies alike have reason to fear her. Scottish warrior and martial arts teacher Scathach is portrayed as a mix of drill sergeant and college professor. This allows for a rumination on women’s roles in society and the military, and the introduction of another female warrior into the narrative, Boudica, whose final defeat provides a poignant and horrifying reminder to Scathach’s daughter, Uathach, of the need for women to stand together. Uathach, who has little use for martial strategy, is played as a somewhat flighty and materialistic teenager, a choice which undermines the meaningful alternative to fight or flight this character could present. Finally, Rae reclaims Deirdre from her legacy as plot device or tragic heroine and allows the audience to see the strength in her choices. Though she pays dearly for it, Rae’s Deirdre holds onto agency in her life and death, despite every attempt by Conchobar mac Nessa to wrest it from her. Through each story, Rae makes it brutally clear how hard it was for women to avoid becoming pawns in the political and military conquests of men.
Though many people may have a passing acquaintance with the characters of the Ulster Cycle through the plays of W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge, most probably can’t recall the details of the stories they told. Though Savanna Rae has a decidedly contemporary and feminist take on the stories, she honors the tradition of storytellers of the past as well as the subjects she portrays. Though occasionally Daughters of Ire becomes bogged down in its message, usually Rae lets the struggles each of the women face, some of which seem awfully familiar, make her point. Director Carin Silkaitis has helped shape Rae’s performance into a powerful, entertaining and thought-provoking re-examination of the roles that even legendary warrior women were assigned. And watching these women defy those roles is inspiring.
Daughters of Ire, a co-benefit production of Oak Park Festival Theatre and Open Door Theater, runs through July 29 at Open Door Theater, 902 Ridgeland, Oak Park, Illinois, Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $24. For tickets and information, visit https://oakparkfestival.com. For more information, also visit www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photo by Jhenai Mootz
Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.