Working on Ronan Noone’s latest play, “The Smuggler,” has been “joyful hard work,” says actor Billy Meleady.
Meleady played prominent roles in Noone’s “Baile Trilogy” (“The Lepers of Baile Baiste,” “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” and “The Gigolo of Baile Breag”), followed by a busy career with several local companies, most prominently with Sugan, Tir Na, Vineyard Playhouse, and most recently, SpeakEasy Stage’s production of “Once.”
“I hadn’t heard from Ronan in a long time until I got a call from him about this role,” says Meleady.
With “The Smuggler,” Noone explores the theme of the stranger in a strange land but raises the stakes to a terrifying height by placing a desperate immigrant husband and father in an untenable situation.
“He’s a very charismatic, but controversial,” Meleady says of the protagonist, named Tim Finnegan. “I think of him as a bit like Walter White from ‘Breaking Bad.’ He’s a well-meaning guy who takes a dark path when all he meant to do was be a good provider for his family.”
“The Smuggler” is set on a fictional Massachusetts island that boasts a healthy tourist trade and a built-in tension among the working-class locals who rely on the tourists to survive. The plot focuses on a writer who struggles to make ends meet and maintain his dignity even as his in-laws and his situation beat him down. Things change when he stumbles into petty thievery and then into a lucrative human trafficking ring.
Meleady says he’s not intimidated by what may be seen as an unsympathetic character. The challenge, he says, is that “The Smuggler” is a one-man show in which he plays 10 characters, and Noone’s script is also written entirely in free verse — 9,000 lines of free verse.
“My job is to honor the verse while investing in the intense emotions of this character, his wife, his in-laws and some of the other immigrants on the island,” Meleady says.
Having spent many years living on Martha’s Vineyard working in both the trades and in theater, Meleady says he’s comfortable in the world of the play.
“I know the locations so well,” he says. “Even Ronan’s characters are people I lived and worked with, and the Dublin drawl, I think, is essential to the delivery of the character and the verse. I’m an immigrant, too, so I’ve felt the pressure of the scramble.”
Knowing Noone well, too, has also added more depth to rehearsals, he says. Noone stepped in as director when Judy Braha left the production.
“We’ve changed some of the emphasis, now with the playwright as director,” Meleady says. “And because we know each other so well, we argue so intensely about the scenes and the character and the emotions, that between our slang and our accents, the stage manager says we might as well be speaking another language.”
But the intensity, he says, feeds Noone’s layered approach to a story that looks at the exploitation of immigrants from several levels.
“The cadence of Ronan’s verse feeds into my understanding of how my gestures and expressions can bring the audience along on the story,” Meleady says. “It’s a kind of choreography.”
When art meets life
The artists who populate Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” experience an acute tension between art and life.
“The conflict is no different today,” says Igor Golyak, artistic director of Arlekin Players, which is presenting “The Seagull” in its Needham theater Nov. 8-Dec. 8 ($45-$65; www.arlekinplayers.com). “As theater artists, in Boston right now, we are looking for new ways to connect with audiences. It’s exciting and invigorating, but the work often comes in conflict with the needs of our daily lives.”
Arlekin, now in its 10th season, has focused on presenting works in Russian, but with its extraordinary production of “The Stone” earlier this year (mounted first in Russian and then in English), and now with “The Seagull” (presented exclusively in English), the company is rewriting the boundaries of its own art. In addition to four of Arlekin’s core company members, “The Seagull” cast includes actress Anne Gottlieb, Nael Nacer, Eliott Purcell, and Dev Luthra. The plot in “The Seagull” is less important than the characters who clash with one another as they wrestle with their dissatisfaction with life, love, and success. While spending their energy reaching for people and things that are beyond them, they miss most of the joys of life.
“What I love about this play is that it is about the world of theater,” says Gottlieb, who plays the diva Arkadina, torn between loyalty to her son’s fledgling playwriting career and maintaining her own fading celebrity status. “There’s a mysterious process about how theatrical productions come together, and ‘The Seagull’ is very intentional about exposing some of the secrets.”
Gottlieb says Golyak’s approach is not just a reinterpretation, but a reimagination of the play. “The play is a comedy,” she says. “But beneath the ridiculousness of the situation is a lot of pain.”
The company is using a new translation by American Repertory Theater dramaturgs Ryan McKittrick and Julia Smeliansky and has woven some of Chekhov’s letters into the play (translated by Laurence Senelick), as well as the role of the director (played by Golyak) into the script.
The letters, say Golyak, address the moment when “The Seagull” was first produced — and was a miserable failure. "Just as [Chekhov] was excited to discover this new truth about art, he was failing at his own life.”
Golyak’s work with Arlekin is infused by his own training at the Moscow Art Theatre, Konstantin Stanislavsky’s home theater.
“Chekhov is my specialty,” Golyak says, “but this play really speaks to why we as actors and directors and artists come together and do this work. In the play, a group of people come together and perform a play. Because they are who they are, the lines between onstage and back stage become blurred.”
Rest in peace
The Massachusetts theater community was saddened to learn of the unexpected death Oct. 5 of noted actor and producer Gabriel Kuttner. Kuttner, 45, worked in theaters across the state — in “The 39 Steps” at Gloucester Stage, in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Pride and Prejudice,” in Wellfleet with Harbor Stage Company, in Stoneham with the Greater Boston Stage Company, and elsewhere. Kuttner was one of the founders of the outstanding and much-missed Orfeo Group, a producer of “[Expletive]-Faced Shakespeare,” and the onetime manager of the Rockwell theater in Somerville.
Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Nov. 7-24. Tickets $10-$35, 866-811-4111, www.bostonplaywrights.org.