WATERVILLE — The confident hero seeks out the water of immortality, nearly drinks it, but fails.

Then, he’s declared the bravest of men and receives, as proof, a green helmet.

But he is tricked into fighting and killing his only son. After discovering the truth, the angry hero runs out to fight the sea, and drowns.

His wife makes a bargain with the spirits of the sea, restoring the hero to life.

Later, the hero battles his wife and is killed for the second, and final, time.

Those stories — of mythical Celtic folk figure Cuchulain, as told by Irish literary legend William Butler Yeats — have stuck with Waterville resident Richard Sewell for decades.

“He’s sort of the embodiment of life-bubbling over; nothing is going to stop this guy,” Sewell said. “So, there is this strong story, and watching somebody incredibly sure of himself eventually get his comeuppance makes for good theater.”

Especially, Sewell said, because Yeats’s tales about Cuchulain (pronounced “Cu-hoo-lin”) have almost always been presented in theaters as five separate, one-act plays. According to Sewell’s research, only a handful of times in the last century have the five separate plays been presented as a single perormance with an inter-connected narrative.

In just a few days, Sewell will realize his lifelong dream by doing just that. “The Cuchulain Cycle” will open at 7 p.m. April 7 at Colby College’s Strider Theater and run through April 9.

Sewell, 76, the director, has envisioned combining the plays into a single performance since he was in college.

It was more than 50 years ago when he was an English major at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and one of his professors inspired Sewell to study and appreciate Yeats. Sewell even played the role of the High King of Ireland in one of the plays.

Sewell fell in love with Yeats’s short-verse plays and soon got the idea that the five Cuchulain plays — written over the span of the writer’s theatrical career — should be “combined together into a full evening,” creating festival of myth, music, masks and dance.

As far as Sewell knows, that full evening has only been realized twice before, and once was at the National Theatre of Ireland, which Yeats founded.

“To me, it makes perfect sense (to combine the plays), but apparently not too many people noticed that over the years,” Sewell said. “Yeats himself did not ever write it as a full play, so it’s pretty rare to have all five at once.”

Sewell’s theater career took off in an unlikely setting: while serving in the Army, stationed in Germany, in the 1950s.

Long-story-short, Sewell says, some soldiers wanted to do a performance of “Julius Caesar” and, because of his college experience, Sewell was tapped as director. A European film company had just finished making a Roman film, so they were able to use all of the film’s costumes and props. The productions — the first of which was at the Army base — would later win a European-wide theater contest.

“I came back from Europe, to my surprise, with some legitimate-sounding theater credentials,” he said.

Over the years, Sewell has directed three of the Cuchulain one-act plays, and so he already some masks and other props in storage. Although the idea of the full performance has been “boiling in the back of my mind as something to do,” Sewell said he never had the opportunity to make it happen.

“I’ve had a taste of the feast, but not the feast itself,” he said.

Still, he kept notebooks of ideas about the performance, even as other theater projects and jobs kept absorbing his attention.

In 1970, Sewell helped found The Theater at Monmouth. Sewell and Robert Joyce, a theater professor from the University of Wisconsin, ran the organization for about four years by hiring professional actors from around the country to produce a summer season of plays with an emphasis on Shakespeare.

At Colby, Sewell helped develop the drama department into what it is today, with multiple theaters and performances each year.

He would teach at Colby’s theater department for 27 years before retiring and directed at the Monmouth theater for 24 years. He also worked as a guest director at other theaters, taking on Shakespeare, Moliere, Tennessee Williams, and others.

Fulfilling the dream

All the while, the draw of Cuchulain was powerful.

Retired from Colby for the last decade, Sewell has been invited back a handful of times to direct performances at the college.

A couple of years ago, Sewell submitted a proposal to the college’s theater department to direct “The Cuchulain Cycle” and he learned last summer that it had been approved. Since then, Sewell has been relentlessly working on creating props and set designs — including more than 30 masks — as well as casting and writing the combined narrative.

The play, with a student cast, held its first read-through Feb. 8. There are 13 actors playing more than 20 roles.

What’s thrilling and challenging about combining the five acts into one performance is that each is so different, Sewell said. Thematically, they range from the mystical and mythic, to farce, to borrowing from a Japanese performance style, to deadly serious.

“So the challenge, the exciting part, is to figure out a way to honor the different plays and at the same time create an evening that hangs together,” he said.

There have been practical challenges, too, like building and painting 32 different masks for the cast.

Yeats himself wrote the plays, specifying that the cast’s faces resembled masks, because “he knew he was writing about mythology, almost superhuman beings.”

“That sort of more-than-human, eerie quality is what masks can do,” Sewell said. “It’s a while aspect of theater that goes back to very, very ancient theater.”

But it presents a challenge for actors: they can’t express emotions with their faces. Instead, they must rely on dialogue, chants, and importantly, on body gestures. All actors will wear masks throughout the plays, until the very end, when the masks are discarded for scenes in modern Ireland.

Ultimately, Cuchulain himself is many things: a hero, a god, a messenger, a symbol. He’s the embodiment of turbulent and impulsive aspects of human nature — which Yeats saw part of the Irish national character.

And with the five plays running as one, Sewell sees a profound tale of a mythic figure’s rise and fall, played against the backdrop of dance, recorded and live music, and chants.

“It’s like a kaleidoscope,” he says. “The mood keeps shifting. I think people will find lots of different stuff to watch and listen to.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

[email protected]

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