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ENSEMBLE RAPPORT The cast of The Seafarer rally the demons.

When it comes to ghosts and other supernatural catalysts, Halloween's theatrical repertoire is actually rivaled by that of the Yuletide season. From Scrooge's visitations to George Bailey's Clarence, Christmas often seems to call out both literal and figurative spirits. So it's entirely fitting that as its Halloween production this year, the American Irish Repertory Ensemble stages a dark comedy, Conor McPherson's 2006 The Seafarer, about the various demons rallied on a certain Christmas Eve. Naturally, this being an Irish play, more than a dram of these spirits issues forth from a bottle.

The middle-aged men drinking it, in a squalid basement apartment, have seen better days. Richard (Tony Reilly), single, blind, and cantankerous, has spent the wee hours since the last night's revels passed out under the table in his own house, and his buddy Ivan (the excellent Mark Honan) wakes up having lost his glasses, possibly his car, and assuredly the good graces of his wife. Lumbering about to make them toast and tea is one man determinedly not drinking: Sharkey (Craig Ela), Richard's brother, a haunted bruiser with a history, who keeps himself near-choking on his own leash.

He's recently returned home to live with and care for Richard, who barrages him mercilessly with insults, self-pity, and grievous pleas for more Powers whiskey. With Sharkey's stoic, clenched-jaw help, the three men make it through the morning and their Christmas shopping (which includes three more bottles of Powers), and finally settle in for some Christmas Eve poker. As if the booze didn't make things volatile enough, they're also joined by Sharkey's ex-wife's new lover, Nicky (the fireball Corey Gagne) and Nicky's mysteriously dapper and omniscient friend Mr. Lockhart (Paul Haley), who seems to know something damning about Sharkey's past. And so, as they play, do spirits take hold, calling out everything from card cheats to the nature of the human condition itself.

Director Dan Burson brings to his production some actors heretofore unseen on AIRE stages: Joining longtime AIRE performers Reilly and Haley are Ela (a Theater Project regular), the marvelous comic actor Honan (who's worked extensively with both the Theater Project and Portland Stage) and Gagne (who recently appeared with Naked Shakespeare). Their ensemble's rapport does great justice to the sort of long-held intimacies sustained with equal measures of camaraderie and antagonism.

The living/dining room in which these blokes banter, brawl, and nod off is evoked with the marvelously sordid realism that is often a hallmark of AIRE sets: Designer Stacey Koloski houses the brothers in a hovel of warped and peeling wallpaper crookedly adorned with posters for Harp, Guinness, and Beamish, along with one faded Jesus above an electric candle. Around and beneath the threadbare furniture, which looks like it's absorbed any number of fluids, lurk abandoned Lucozade and beer bottles, empty crisp sacks, take-out containers, and tabloids. The only windows are small, smeared, and high up on the wall, and a small fake Christmas tree tilts in its stand. The most wholesome sight here is the tin pail of peat sods with which Sharkey struggles to keep the place warm.

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ARTICLES BY MEGAN GRUMBLING
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