Clearly, we are at the next level here.
Yeats' verse play tells the story of a wealthy countess who returns to her childhood home after a devastating war, only to discover that poverty and starvation have ravaged the people.
Cathleen expends all her wealth in an effort to stem the never-ending tide of the hungry, homeless and hopeless, but it is not enough. Ultimately, she must bargain with representatives from Hell itself, two ``merchants'' who offer the miserable minions what she cannot.
Money - food, clothing, shelter, power, etc. - for their wretched souls.
Yeats set the play in a poor Irish village in the 1800s. First performed in 1899, it spawned fiery controversy and even protests. The predominantly Roman Catholic audience considered the story blasphemous on several counts.
No doubt Jones' interpretation - which sets the story in a Southern community of ex-slaves after the Civil War, employs an African-American countess, and depicts the merchants as white carpetbaggers (sometimes wearing blackface masks) - will be likewise labeled by some.
However, the territory covered by this production - gifted with strong acting, good music and a creative use of dance - make it more than a mere curiosity.
Jones - who found deep human parallels in both settings - has made Yeats' allegory and themes accessible to a greater audience by coupling his poetic language with historical elements from the African-American experience.
The result has the ability to enrich - and perhaps enlighten - us all.
Admittedly, the small set inhibits the choreography. The cast varies in ability, and not all are comfortable with Yeats' language. (Most difficult to overlook is the vocal cadence of Sabela as Aleel. Although his character is a poet, his delivery is a bit too hip-hop. He is also compelled to break into rather dissonant song on numerous occasions.)
However, Lisa D. White Jones - lovely, intense and determined - is simply riveting as the self-sacrificing Cathleen. Also unforgettable is Sally Mercer, as Cathleen's loving foster mother, Oona.
Merchants Jennifer Childs and Pete Pryor blend the dastardly and comedic in just the right proportions.
THE COUNTESS CATHLEEN Produced by Arden Theater Company, written by William Butler Yeats, directed by Ozzie Jones, music by Ozzie Jones, Damon Rodriguez Bennett and Vincent Rutland, choreography by Faye Snow.
Shemus Rua - Robert Anu
Mary - Lenny Daniels
Teigue - Kareem Diallo Carpenter
Countess Cathleen -
- Lisa D. White Jones
Oona - Sally Mercer
Aleel - Sabela
Merchants - Pete Pryor
- Jennifer Childs
Playing at: Arden Theater Company, 40 N. 2nd St. Through Feb. 23. $16-$24. 215-922-8900.