In “Translations,” a battle of tongues

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Photo by Zeenat Mansoor.

Opening today, the Yale Dramatic Association’s spring mainstage production, “Translations,” deals with language and the fate of those confronted by its loss.

Written by Irish playwright Brian Friel in 1980, the play takes place in a small Irish village in the 1830s that is in the midst of being forcibly Anglicized by occupying British troops. While taking on weighty themes, the show maintains a lighter appeal as well — as Dramat President Meredith Davis ’13 said, “it’s very intellectual, but it’s a romance and it’s funny.”

In the ensuing culture clash between the Irish and British, neither understands the other’s native tongue, and the play centers around those characters caught between the two sides. New York-based director Lauren Keating said she was drawn in by the play’s themes of searching for home and community — and sometimes failing.

Keating said that trying to communicate and being unable to do so is a problem to which many theater artists can especially relate.

Despite the universality of the play’s themes, it is also very specific to a particular moment in Ireland’s past, said Edward Delman ’12, who plays the part of the schoolmaster’s son Manus. He added that it was difficult for the cast to understand the consciousness of the time.

“It’s a challenge to understand where both Brian Friel and these characters are coming from,” Delman said.

Actors and designers worked together to make the production as authentic as possible, from costume and hair styles to set design. Keating said that by paying such close attention to detail, she hopes the show will convey that the Irish culture is at risk of being lost.

“We wanted to create a very cozy, communal environment, making it textured, to feel like we can touch it and hold it, and then show the loss of that,” Keating said.

Producer Yuvika Tolani ’14 said that from the beginning, the director sought to make the play a wholly immersive experience — even within the enormous space of the University Theatre. To draw the audience into the world of the show, Keating chose to move all of the action onto the first five feet of the actual stage and then build a custom stage extension.

Keating said that manipulating the physical space of the theater is also a way of conveying the themes of the play. By not using the entirety of the stage and space until the very end of the play, the production shows a shift in the nature of the community.

“At first we see these people, and they seem big, and their world seems very small, and by the end of the play its the world that is very big and the people are very small,” Keating said.

Because language barriers play such a key role in the show, actors took lessons with a professional dialect coach. While all the actors speak English, Irish and British accents are meant to denote English and Gaelic respectively.

Four members of the cast and crew interviewed cited the accent training as the most challenging part of the production.

“I thought I could do a British accent before,” said Daniel Kovalcik ’15, who plays a British captain in the play. “[The dialect coach] went to each one of the actors and told us what we were doing was completely wrong.”

Adding to the challenge of learning an accent, some actors have to transition seamlessly between proper British and heavily regional Irish accents within a scene.

Working alongside a team of outside designers gave all students involved a chance to experience how the professional theater world works, Tolani said. As the Dramat’s mainstage production, she explained, “Translations” involved working “on a scale that doesn’t exist anywhere else in theater at Yale.”

Jamie Biondi ’12, who plays the part of the town’s school master, said that the opportunity to work with “high caliber” professionals has been a major factor in his decision to act in mainstage productions all four years of his time at Yale.

The Dramat executive board selected Keating from among a pool of professional directors after what Davis described as “a pretty extensive interview process.” Keating, Davis said, came in with a clear enthusiasm for working with students, as well as a specific vision for the show.

“[Keating] is fabulous,” Delman said. “She knows how to interact with actors and how to get the results that she wants.”

“Translations” will play at the University Theatre from Feb. 22-25.

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