A minimalist production of an Irish play puts the focus squarely on language, the cast and traditional Irish music.

The University of Montana's theater department is staging Irish playwright Brian Friel's "Translations" in a stripped-down studio setting with a minimal set and costumes.

"It puts the actors at the absolute center of the process," said director and faculty member Bernadette Sweeney.

Friel wrote and first staged the play in 1980 with a company he founded with actor Stephen Rea.

Sweeney, a native of Ireland who's written a book about theater there, said "Translations" was written as an allegory at the height of the political unrest in Northern Ireland.

Friel set his play in a rural village in 1833 before the onset of the famine.

English soldiers arrive to map the territory, and misunderstandings and conflicts between two different languages and cultures - along with a love triangle - ultimately trigger a greater threat to all involved.

Language and communication, or lack thereof, are central themes in the play.

"Friel uses a very clever device to create for the audience that disconnect when two cultures meet and the problems that ensue," she said, while also highlighting the possibilities of humor and strong use of language.

The cast isn't using dialect for the play, although Sweeney said Friel's writing has a "pure poetry" to it.

Cast member Tyson Gerhardt Hirsh, an undergraduate majoring in theater with a minor in Irish studies, concurred.

"The beauty of the Irish lilt is already written into the words," he said. "You can't read it without starting to get into a little of a brogue."

Sweeney noted that it's not a piece of "Irish nationalist propaganda," describing it instead as "a picture of the lost opportunities and misunderstandings and the need to find some sort of common ground."

Sweeney did her undergraduate work in Northern Ireland before the ceasefire, earning her doctorate in Irish theater and performance from Trinity College in Dublin.

She worked with cross-community theater projects for youths that informed her approach to "Translations," and had the chance to see other productions of Friel and Rea's work.

This particular play has long been on her wish list of theater projects.

"It's something I've always wanted to do, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to finally do it," Sweeney said.


The production is the UM drama department's first "studio setting" play in several years.

Sweeney said it's a way of fitting a play into the program that doesn't require the full resources that go into a main-season production on the larger Montana Theater stage, instead using the smaller Masquer Theatre.

And so the cast has been focused on the use of language, gesture and interactions.

Clare Edgerton, who's finishing her second master's this semester, said it's one the best experiences she's had working on a play because of that level of detail on character and ensemble work.

The other five shows Edgerton has acted in at UM have had huge sets and big budgets, and the last several weeks before opening night are spent incorporating technical details.

The small stage at the Masquer, meanwhile, will be relatively bare, which Edgerton described as "very freeing but also very scary."

She said Sweeney "challenges us in ways that are really exciting."

Sweeney said UM's production and design resources at UM extravagant by the standards of some Irish theater she's worked in, and that the play is suited to the minimal production.

The cast will provide music for the play in the form of traditional Irish songs selected by Sweeney.

Four of the 12-member cast are students who are also seeking a minor in Irish studies.

One of those students, Hirsh, has played Irish music since he was 14 and took a trip to Ireland. He taught his friends traditional music upon his return to the United States and formed an Irish band when he was in high school.

Between the total cast, they have covered the mandolin, guitar, Celtic frame drum and tin whistle. All of the members will sing.

Edgerton, too, has ties to Ireland. She got her first master's degree in Ireland, where she first learned one of the songs that she sings in the show, "I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love."

Sweeney said the undergraduate cast members are learning from working with three MFA graduate students, for whom the play is their final creative project.

"Working alongside the younger students really passes on the expertise and the mastery, if you like," she said.

Sweeney also taught theater at University College Cork and moved to Montana in 2008.

At UM, she teaches theater history and performance studies, and has taught courses in the Irish drama for the UM Irish Studies program and courses in the English department.

She's been active in the local theater community here as an actor and director. In 2010, she directed two plays by Samuel Beckett at the Crystal Theater.

More recently, she was the director for the Montana Repertory Theatre's 2014 national touring production of "The Miracle Worker."