Shell Game 

Wilde Irish's symbolic Ariel is not for the faint-hearted.

Fermoy Fitzgerald has a very interesting idea of God, one described by other characters as primitive and vengeful. It's a conception he wants to spread -- and how to spread it more effectively than as Prime Minister? But Fermoy's God wants something in return for helping the man get the power he craves; his god wants an "endless bloodbath of the soul." And Fermoy's going to give it to him.

The premise of Marina Carr's dark, sanguinary tale of madness, politics, and faith is drawn from both the Greek classics and the ancient spirituality and mythology of Ireland. A shocking blend of poetry and death, Ariel is as ambitious as its protagonist, with the body count of a Shakespearean tragedy and a larger-than-life lyricism that confuses the boundary between reality and imagined states. It's set in the present, but it could as easily be taking place in some ancient Greek courtyard.

Which it is, in a way. Ariel is a loose retelling of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, the story of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter to gain battlefield success; audiences may remember Shotgun's production back in 2001. In fact, a brief primer on the curse of the house of Atreus is in order, as Carr is clever with her parallels. Agamemnon, scion of Atreus, is leading the Spartan army to retrieve Helen, but there's no wind to push his ships. So he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia, and for a while that seems to help: the army makes it over, Troy is flattened, and so on. But when Agamemnon comes back, his wife Clytemnestra kills him for having sacrificed her daughter, and then his son Orestes and second daughter Elektra kill Clytemnestra for killing Agamemnon, and then the Furies show up, and if you saw The Oresteia at the Berkeley Rep a few years back you know the rest of this story.

So does Carr, and she follows it pretty closely while also twisting it to be something very different. Her murderous father also has two daughters and a son, and they act much as their classical models do. People die in more or less the same order, and there's even a similar backstory that suggests this taint has been on the family for generations -- that Fermoy is carrying a curse in his genes.

These parallels are muted in the first act, where Carr introduces the ghosts that haunt the characters, especially Fermoy's murdered mother and his wife's first husband and son. You really need to pay attention during the intricate and subtle emotional shell game of the first act. In the second act, however, Carr gets very expository with an overlong interview between Fermoy and a reporter that dissects the ten years that have elapsed between acts. The interview is a bit of a shock; as a device it seems awkward for Carr, whose intense prose is otherwise quite fluid. And the third act is something else again, when the pigeons come home to roost and the bodies start to drop. In an interesting twist, all of the characters eventually become hateful except Fermoy's daughter Ariel, who we don't see long enough to know -- unlike in Iphigenia, where we see the doomed daughter become aware of her fate, and accede to it in the name of furthering her father's destiny.

The acting is solid in Wilde Irish's intimate production at the Berkeley City Club, especially a deep, mature Rica Anderson as Frances and Robert Hamm's creepy yet charismatic Fermoy. Howard Dillon is warm and convivial as Fermoy's helpless brother Boniface, the only monk under sixty in his order, and a man questioning faith himself yet mortified by his brother's radically bloody interpretation ("Christianity," he tells Fermoy sternly, "is based on God not sleeping.") And director Gemma Whelan uses the limited space well, making the audience complicit in the various crimes that unfold.

Ariel is as heavy with symbolism as Marley with his chains -- for example, a woman who breastfed her son until he was ten describes a dream where she's nursing a viper, and the whole atmosphere teems with unseen, ancient presences. The language is gorgeous, the structure occasionally clumsy, and the story gripping if horrible. Carr is a modern fabulist who writes with the gravity of another age, and this Ariel is not for the faint-hearted.

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