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Theater: Sailing To Byzantium

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Playwright: Sandra Deer, At: Caffeine Theatre at Live Bait, 3814 N. Clark St., Phone: (773) 561-7611; $15 Runs through: Oct. 10

Olivia Shakespear—yes, that's the correct spelling—was the Barbara Cartland of the Edwardian age, the author of popular novels recounting the romantic intrigues of fundamentally decent people who 'shouldn't have physical relationships when they aren't married, but sometimes do'. She might have been describing her own social circle, her fiction being, as some of those in it suspected, exercises in roman à clef. But, as her own husband reminds her, 'Marriages DO succeed despite such things, don't they?'

Certainly everyone in Sailing To Byzantium has their secrets: William Butler Yeats, the renowned Irish poet, has idolized actress-turned-activist Maud Gonne for decades. The aforementioned Olivia ('Livy' to her intimates) fondly recalls the youthful affair she and 'Willy' shared. Her daughter, Dorothy, is smitten with Yeats' secretary, the egotistical Ezra Pound, who is himself devoted to sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, his 'little brother in art', currently fighting in France (it's 1916 and the war against Germany rages just across the channel). And her niece, Georgie—a shy damsel sharing her gift for clairvoyance—is in love with Yeats. Bringing all these suppressed emotions to a crisis is the execution of Irish rebels following a failed attempt to usurp English rule—the heightened patriotism and partisanship engendered by this event threatening lifelong friendships.

In less careful hands, Sandra Deer's speculative documentation of Celebrity folly and heartbreak could be reduced to talking heads swapping words in pristine PBS accents. But talk is Caffeine Theatre's avowed focus, and this new company has spared no effort in ascertaining that their debut production features talking heads of the highest order. When your principle characters are comprised of the foremost voices in western literature, eloquence is mandatory.

Under Jennifer Shook's deft direction and Christine Adaire's likewise adroit dialect instruction, a cast led by Ron Butts and Pat Hofmann as the middle-aged but still passionate Willy and Livy (with David Dastmalchian's youthful Pound slyly suggesting the bitter and stubborn old man he will become) generate dazzling conversation to keep us enraptured for a neat two hours. And for more visually oriented playgoers, Joshua D. Allard's costumes render the grotesque fashions of the period so exquisite, you wonder why they ever went out of style.

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