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Griffin’s The Hostage: Sometimes Indecipherable But Always A Good Time

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 24, 2009 3:20PM

cast of The Hostage, photo by Michael Brosilow

We didn’t know much about Brendan Behan’s The Hostage before we showed up at Griffin Theatre's opening night, but after reading dramaturg Stefka Mihaylova’s program notes, we figured we were up to speed. It’s 1960, the Republic of Ireland is independent from England but separate from Northern Ireland, and former I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army) member Pat is renting his inn as a brothel to make ends meet. It sounded pretty heavy. But then some drag queens started doing a jig. And we realized we should’ve brought some whiskey to the party.

Billed as an “absurdist tragi-comedy,” The Hostage contains ridiculous shifts in focus and mood in impossibly short amounts of time - in a quiet, intimate scene, one character mentions that she never knew her mother…cue the violin. Literally. References to France or the French people are accompanied on the piano by La Marseillaise. When characters break into song - and they often do - a microphone descends from overhead. Toward the end of the first act, we finally meet the title character - a 19 year-old British soldier (Leslie) being held captive by the I.R.A. in response to the death sentence handed to a young I.R.A. member (but not yet carried out) by the British. What we thought would be the sobering turning point that sets the tone for the remainder of the play turned into a rousing chorus of “There’s no place on earth like the world.”

That's not to say that the show is all silliness and no substance. Under Jonathan Berry's deft direction, the dynamic 17-person ensemble (including four musicians) is mostly able to lend an appropriate amount of gravity to the script when necessary. The fine line is tread most successfully by Eamonn McDonagh (Pat) and the fiery Donna McGough, who plays Pat’s wife, Meg. Excepting a few times when his accent became too thick for us to understand, McDonagh’s delivery of lines like, “I’m not what you’d call a hero, I’m what you’d call an ex-hero,” hits the right note every time. Other stand-outs in the cast include the charming but petulant Rob Fenton (Leslie), a disarmingly earnest Nora Fiffer, and Sara Sevigny, whose comic timing and singing voice are both pitch-perfect. Although they tended toward caricature over character, we were also consistently entertained by Melissa Riemer’s physical comedy, Chris Chmelik’s sass and Rom Barkhordar’s perhaps-unwitting decision to take vocal inflection cues from Sam The Eagle.

Our advice: when you check out this show, don’t expect to understand every moment. Just enjoy the ride.

The Hostage, through November 1, Griffin Theatre Company at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets $28 (senior/student/group discounts available), 773-327-5252.