116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A weir can be a human-made structure that regulates water flow, or an enclosure that traps fish. At Riverside Theatre, it’s a bit of both.
It’s also a way of luring audiences into a rural Irish pub on a cold and blustery night in the 1990s, to hear tall tales of old Ireland that delve into things that haunt the soul.
So hang onto your paddy cap and clutch a pint to keep your timbers from shivering.
“We haven’t done a spooky play in a long time,” director Adam Knight said, “and it just felt right for Halloween.”
What: “The Weir”
Where: Riverside Theatre, 119 E College St., Iowa City
When: Oct. 14 to 30; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $35; riversidetheatre.org/the-weir/
Content: Appropriate for adults and older teenage audiences; contains adult language and mature themes
COVID protocols: Masks required in all spaces; 50 percent capacity on Thursdays
Extras: Miriam Gilbert hosts a talkback with the cast and director following the Oct. 16 matinee. Iowa Ghost Hunters will participate in a panel discussion after the Oct. 29 performance; both events are free and open to the public, whether listeners attended the show or not.
Concert: Coppers & Brass will perform haunted Irish music onstage at 4 p.m., after the Oct. 23 matinee; $15 suggested donation, riversidetheatre.org/special-events/ with proceeds supporting Riverside Theatre’s Next Stage campaign
No fish will be trapped onstage. Knight said that definition of “weir” is more of a tongue-in-cheek nod to the pub being a watering hole reeling in customers.
But the more common definition points to the Emerald Isle’s history.
“In Ireland, in the mid-20th century, about 23 or so weirs went up all around the country, which essentially brought power to rural Ireland. It was a major infrastructure project. A lot of these rural towns didn't have electricity until the 1950s and 1960s, and so it kind of brought everyone onto the grid,” Knight said.
The play takes on a nostalgic tone, as well, in the face of advancing technology.
“What I think the playwright’s getting at, is what connections were lost in this move to modernity. A lot of the stories in the play have to do with the town before this time — this connection to a fairie road that used to exist along the river, and a connection to spirits. The memory of that is still embedded in the town, but it’s fading,” Knight said.
“(Also), how do we hold onto these stories when our connection to the countryside — to the rivers when they were this magical thing, not a means of power — are gone?
And when a stranger wanders into the pub, the regulars’ stories may or may not wander into the realm of “old cod,” a slang term for blarney.
“It sets up this kind of wonderful eerie setting and situation for the stories to be told,” Knight said.
It also reminds him of the story about Mary Shelley and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who would meet with Lord Byron and his physician, John Polidori, at Lake Geneva, creating ghost stories and trying to top each other’s tales.
These friendly contests gave rise to “Frankenstein,” Knight noted, adding that in a way, it’s akin to the gathering of storytellers in “The Weir.”
A sense of community comes into play, as well, between the four men at the pub, and the area’s newest resident, Valerie.
“You had this stranger coming in, and she's moved to the countryside from Dublin for reasons that we discover as the play progresses,” Knight said. “At first, she’s something of a novelty, but is she going to be a part of this community or is she kind of coming in and just driving up the property prices?
“And then, there’s another main character who left the community — who went to another town and made a lot of money, and every once a while, comes back in, sauntering about.
“And I think what the play’s getting at, is that these gathering places, like a pub, keep communities strong. They provide a means of welcoming newcomers in the fold, and they preserve the stories that make the place unique.”
But newcomers also present a conundrum. With strangers come certain dangers for the areas.
“They don’t want to be a tourist attraction,” Knight said, which is mentioned in the play. “You don’t want people to come in and see the natives. There’s this desire to be seen and heard as a human being, and for the people who visit, to really want to invest in the culture.”
When Valerie comes to town, her tour guide — the man who used to live there but moved away — “wants to give her a taste of the local flavors,” Knight said. “So he entices a few of the other locals to tell stories, to give her a sense of the kind of tall tales that go around in the pub.
“As they start out, they’re about a fairie road and about a certain haunting that happened. As (the stories) progress, they become more and more personal.”
It’s an A-list cast of actors, with Noel VanDenBosch as newcomer Valerie; Elliott Bales as Finbar, the resident who moved away; Tim Budd as the “curmudgeonly” barfly, Jack; Aaron Stonerook as Brendan, who has converted part of his farmhouse into the pub; and Bob Mussett as Jim, who does odd jobs around town.
“It's a real ensemble piece,” Knight said. “Every character is almost constantly interjecting the other. And it really requires this sense of relaxation play and competition, which is part of what the play’s about.
“But also as actors, we have to really familiarize ourselves with each other, with the set which … really does feel like a pub. And there needs to be a sense of home and a sense of place.”
Keeping the same kind of staging as Riverside employed for the recent “Chipmunk’d” and plays at the former Gilbert Street stage, helps build a sense of the audience being “a fly on the wall,” watching the various characters exorcise some personal demons as the action unfolds.
And that can be even scarier than spinning supernatural tales, Knight said, adding that the audience is in for a fun ride.
“It’s a ride that makes you want to buy a Guinness, and lean in it,” he said. “I think it’s a play that is going to give people shivers and make them lean in and want to hear how these stories end, and how these characters’ stories end.
“I also think it’s just a chance to see five really top-notch actors really living on stage.”
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