Review: The Chamber Theatre’s ‘Tales from the Hills’ is a little-known treat

Hannah Connally and Tony Harris | Photo by Polina Shafran

In their first few seasons, The Chamber Theatre has presented reasonably consistent if small productions of late 19th- and early 20th-century writers.

While I appreciate the company’s takes on mainstays of the canon — like last year’s production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” — I feel they’re at their best when they present Louisville with unknown plays and strange little works that remain mostly forgotten outside of academia.

“Tales from the Hills,” their current offering, is great example of the latter. This double bill features “Deirdre,” a lyrical tragedy from poet W.B. Yeats, and the the bawdy comedy “In the Shadow of the Glen,” a ribald and risqué romp by another Irish poet, J.M. Synge.

To knit these two plays loosely together, Martin French and Polina Shafran — the duel artistic directors of The Chamber and co-directors for this offering — have added three poems, one from Yeats and two from Synge. These poems act as a frame, suggesting the presence of two storytelling bards who are presenting these stories to the audience.

Vidalia Unwin | Photo by Polina Shafran

I’m not always a fan of forced frames on existing works — they can be clunky when poorly applied. The interpolations of the poems into this work is mostly successful, and more importantly, it allows for extra singing from Clare Hagan, one of the bards.

She’s an incredibly bright spot in an evening with several good performances. While also playing the ukulele, she pops out several tunes using the words of Yeats and Synge, which I suspect were musically her own creations.

She’s a got a clear, bright tone that soars easily across the stage and is equally adept at conveying the longing and romanticism of the Irish stories being presented.

If she’d like to record a whole album of similar tunes, I’d happily buy it.

Once the frame is in place, “Deirdre,” the first play of the evening, starts. It’s the story of a beautiful young woman named Deirdre (Hannah Marie Connally), who is set to marry the powerful King Conchubar (Sean Childress), whom she does not love.

Of course, she falls in love with someone else, a brave young warrior named Naoise (Tony Harris), and the ensuing events are fraught with danger. It’s a remarkably timely discussion of consent and abuse, although the power dynamics between women and powerful men have been violent and dangerous for women since the dawn of time.

The script is clearly written by a poet, which is overall a good thing. The words are gorgeous, but the structure, including stakes and other tools that make a drama work, is often absent.

Rich Williams | Photo by Polina Shafran

Most of the actors are at home with the lyricism and rythms of the dialogue. Their performances easily carry the audience over the occasionally thudding moments from the actors who aren’t as comfortable with the lush and elevated language.

Connally wrings grace from the words with a tragic and plaintive lilt, presenting an archetypical woman in danger. While the script doesn’t give her character a lot of specificity, the poetry is enough when coupled with Connally’s delivery to make the audience quickly fall in love.

Childress does reasonably well with the verse but struggles sometimes to convey the menace of a man in power who has few morals when it comes to getting what he wants. However, those times that he does hit the correct level of dangerous and oily are chillingly effective and help impart a real sense of danger to keep the play moving.

The actor most at home with the poetry is Rena Brown, genderblind cast as the aging warrior Fergus. She catches the grandeur of the poetic language but still manages to sound very human.

I liked “Deirdre” quite a bit, and it’s the stronger half of the evening.

“In the Shadow of the Glen” is a small tale about a few humble folks on a rainy night. The action centers around Nora Burke (Marcy Ziegler), a vivacious farm wife who has a roving eye and no shame in taking what she wants.

I caught Ziegler in Acting Against Cancer’s “The Wedding Singer” earlier this year and was pleased to see her again here, and even more happy to see her as a leading lady. She holds the action together and commands the stage, as befits the play.

Marcy Ziegler and Gerry Rose | Photo by Polina Shafran

It’s an interesting reversal of the power dynamics in the first show of the evening, and the smaller stakes make this a neat pairing with the more mythic events of “Deirdre.”

“Glen” doesn’t deliver as well as “Deirdre,” though it’s still a satisfying bit of comedy. Its problem is that while the performances are all at least pretty decent, the actors often seem to be in different plays.

Vidalia Unwin, who plays a lonesome shepherd boy, is in a play with Looney Tunes-sized reactions, but Gerry Rose, a wandering tramp, is playing oversized but controlled camp. Rich Williams’ Dan Burke is broadly comic but realistic, and leading lady Ziegler is underplaying her wordplay with a wink and a naughty smile.

Variety is good, but performances, even in a comedy, have to have a certain tonal unity.

This flaw doesn’t keep the comedy from eliciting quite a few hardy laughs. Ziegler and Rose are particularly good together, and I’d like to see that pairing on stage again. But when a comedy really zings, the parts add up to quite a bit more than their sum. Here the effect is more like several funny people standing near each other.

Still, I really enjoyed this performance, and it leaves me wanting to see more from The Chamber Theatre, especially when they show us these mostly forgotten gems.

“Tales from the Hills” is back on stage Nov. 16-18 at the Mellwood Arts Center, 1860 Mellwood Ave. Tickets are $15, and shows start at 7:30 p.m.