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August Sing-ing

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

&quotTo; be truly universal," claimed the Spanish artist Joan Mir-, &quotone; must be truly local."

Two of the 20th Century's greatest dramatists confirm the Catalonian painter's statement to be true, as the work of J.M. Synge and August Wilson prove that vivid language and rich theatricality can make the happenings of a small community relevant to the wider world.

John Millington Synge lived only to the age of thirty, but in those three decades he wrote six plays that today can be rightly seen as touchstones of modern theater.

The opening night riots that greeted Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1913 signify to many the beginning of 20th Century Music; and similarly, the riots that broke out in the Abbey Theatre during the first performances of Synge's Playboy of the Western World in 1907 suggest the unruly birth of 20th Century drama.

In the British Isles this summer, Gerry Hynes--the first woman to win a Tony award for Best Director--has staged all six of Synge's plays, creating an eight-and-a-half hour long theatrical event that expertly showcases just why this playwright matters in Ireland and abroad.

Here in America, Synge's work is especially relevant. Synge wanted to break with British theatrical traditions and create a distinct Irish style. He succeeded in this by capturing the rural Irish vernacular and creating characters, that despite their low position in society, grandly come to life on stage.

Experiencing these six plays in a single day, one can't help but see Synge's influence on the naturalistic style that was to emerge here in America. The anti-heroes of Eugene O'Neill, the strong female characters of Tennessee Williams, the rhapsodic slang of August Wilson--all are indebted to Synge.

Sadly, Synge's plays--with the exception of Playboy--are rarely performed here in the United States. We can hope then that like Synge himself, Hynes' touring production will travel west, and after rave reviews in Galway, Dublin and Edinburgh, will one day make it here.

August Wilson's body of work has never been presented in one marathon staging, but for twenty years now Los Angeles has witnessed Wilson's ongoing project of ten plays that depict Black Americans in each decade of the 20th Century.

These plays share Synge's belief in the poetry of the powerless, but Wilson himself also shares Synge's revolutionary spirit. Just as Synge was involved in creating a National Irish Theatre at the end of the 1800's, August Wilson started the Black Horizons Theatre in the 1960's to promote African American voices on stage.

But most of all it is Wilson's identification with a single milieu that connects him to the Irish dramatist. If Synge's work is rooted in the villages of Western Ireland, Wilson's writing is based in the playwright's native Pittsburgh.

Nine of the ten plays in Wilson's cycle are set in that city's Hill District--including the final work in the series, Radio Golf, which is currently playing at the Music Center.

Radio Golf is Wilson's take on the 1990's and it involves gentrification, as two black entrepreneurs try to turn Pittsburgh's Hill District into a specially zoned neighborhood with the more investment-friendly name, Bedford Hills.

There is enjoyment in Radio Golf, but this is not Wilson's finest work. The play's most notable feature is that it completes the ambitious cycle. &quotHold; me to it!" is the slogan of the play's main character who's running for mayor, but it's also a reminder of Wilson's resolve in completing this unrivaled achievement in American drama.

The announcement last week that Mr. Wilson is dying of liver cancer gives this production--which Wilson consulted on and stars actors who've worked with the playwright before--an even greater importance.

It's perhaps naive to hope for a new August Wilson work that will tackle the first decade of this new century, but no doubt the playwright's mind, if not his pen, is already working at it. To invoke Mir- once again: &quotTo; be an artist is to believe in life."

August Wilson's Radio Golf continues at the Mark Taper Forum through September 18.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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