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Theater department goes a little musical

The Hostage’

Lincoln Hall
May 30-June 7
$7.50 students
$9 general
$4 preview May 29
Check Web site for show times

Portland State University’s School of Fine and Performing Arts and the theater department is currently reviving great Irish writer Brendan Behan’s “The Hostage,” a comedy-drama noteworthy for its abundance of vivid, eccentric characters. Originally written in Gaelic, “The Hostage” came to wide public attention in 1958 with an English translation by the author that was directed by the visionary Joan Littlewood in London’s East End. It was produced on Broadway in 1960 and revived Off-Broadway in 1962. If ever a play belonged in a cozy, intimate space, this is it.

The action of “The Hostage” takes place in 1958 in a Dublin flophouse owned by a barmy Anglo-Irishman with militant Republican sympathies. The landlord has agreed to shelter two operatives of the Irish Republican Army and their prisoner, an 18-year-old English soldier snared in reprisal for the capital sentence just passed on an IRA member convicted of shooting a policeman. The whores and scruffy losers who inhabit the boarding house have been keening over news accounts of the young IRA man awaiting execution in a Belfast jail. The arrival of the English hostage, appealingly wet behind his ears, transforms the weird ecosystem of the residence, eliciting humane responses from its denizens and mitigating their patriotic self-righteousness.

Throughout “The Hostage,” Behan is occupied with serious topics such as national and ethnic identity, territorial autonomy, and the human cost of terrorism and political strife. But he never capitulates to solemnity or genuine partisanship. For a final chorus to be sung after a spate of gunfire and the death of one of the play’s most sympathetic characters, Behan comes up with a bouncy, iconoclastic refrain, rather than the dirge that might be expected: “The bells of hell/Go ting-a-ling-a-ling/For you but not for me./Oh death where is thy/Sting-a-ling-a-ling/Or grave thy victory?”

As that ditty suggests, “The Hostage” is as much in the tradition of British Music Hall as in the lineage of Irish drama.

“The Hostage” is directed by Glen Gauer, the PSU theater arts professor who also directed such plays as “Death of a Salesman,” “Flea In Her Ear” and “Something Old, Something New.”

The cast consists of Tim Crabtree, Paul Glazier, Pricilla Harris, Phil Hilfiker, Dylan Hillerman, David Holloway, Jim Jackson, Alisa Jackson, James Johnson, Erin McGarry, Briana Pruett, Steve Pervis, Louis Rajsich, Schuyler Schmid and Kathryn Kelsey. Costumes are by Margaret Louise Chapman. Lights are by Glen Gauer, with set designs by Bruce Keller and Gauer.