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A Pillar of the (Irish Rep) Community A theatre makes an asset of its unusual space

By ERIC GRODE

Actors have clambered up it. Paintings have hung on it, as have flags and bunting. It has been a fence post, a ship mast, a tiny house and (on numerous occasions) a tree. No matter what it is, though, the pillar looming in the downstage right corner of the Irish Repertory Theatre's stage is always the elephant in the room.

"It's an old friend by this point," says artistic director Charlotte Moore, who has wrangled with the pillar on dozens of occasions. "When you design for this space, that's where you have to start."
Luckily, she and her producing director, CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly, use the same designers repeatedly, among them James Morgan, Tony Walton and Klara Zieglerova.

A pillar in the far corner would attract little notice in most theatres, but the odd configuration at Irish Rep's cozy Chelsea venue draws attention. At stage right, where actors typically can exit into the wings, there's a small side pocket of additional seating. These 40 seats---"the jury box," Moore calls them--- make the pillar seem to be dead center in the stage.

She and her set designer, Antje Ellermann, have gone the tried-and-true route of turning the pillar into a tree for their acclaimed revival of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, which closes Jan. 29. "We often set up ladders next to it," Moore says, "and this time we have Gerry Evans, the ne'er-do-well in the play, climb up it at one point."

Once Lughnasa closes, it will be O'Reilly's turn to contend with the pillar; he's directing next month's production of  Beyond the Horizon, Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play and one that sprawls over five different settings. "With a play this demanding, you drop naturalism and veer toward the abstract," O'Reilly says. "The pillar will certainly be in use, but that's all I'll say right now."

He also notes that sometimes, people sitting in the jury box get added benefits.  For instance, in Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly, Charles Nelson Reilly's 2001 solo show, the actor played certain moments exclusively to the side seats.

Both Moore and O'Reilly foresee a not-so-distant future when these concerns will be alleviated, though not eliminated. Funding is in place for a drastic refurbishment of the space, and once city permissions are issued, the jury box could be a thing of the past as early as 2013: Those 40 seats will instead find their way into newly created balcony seating. As a result, Moore says, "the stage will move out some, as well as down, and our hope is that the pillar won't be so limiting." She says removing it altogether, however, would cost an estimated $6.2 million, and while the city has kicked in for a decent amount of the renovations, there are limits.

According to O'Reilly, the pillar's salvation was welcome news to at least one of Irish Rep's frequent designers: "Tony Walton got very misty-eyed at the idea of the pillar going away. He even threatened to add one into the first show he did without one."

Eric Grode is the author of "Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation" (Running Press)