Saturday, May 20, 2017

Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan Beguiles at Dramaworks

The Cripple of Inishmaan is an extraordinary theatre experience, a very good play becoming great in the hands of superlative actors, the steady vision of the Director, and a technical staff that is at the top of its game.  The play itself is Martin McDonagh’s love song to Ireland and its people, distilling centuries of Irish misery, laughter, and story-telling.   The characters he draws are as memorable and distinctive as the music from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.  You will remember them after the show, perhaps long after.  

Dramaworks last staged a Martin McDonagh play six years ago, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Think of The Cripple of Inishmaan as Beauty Queen “Lite”.  Although tragedy and sadness abound (after all, this is Irish theatre), there is a hopefulness, a heartening instead of Beauty Queen‘s unrelenting mournfulness.

The play is McDonagh’s hat tip to Sean O’Casey’s play Riders to the Sea about Aran fisherman and their endurance.  It is also linked to a 1934 fictional documentary film, Man of Aran, directed by Robert J. Flaherty about life on those craggy Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland where people stubbornly cobble a life. The film itself plays a central part in the play and there is an excellent short excerpt of it on YouTube. 

McDonagh uses every dramatic trick in the book, the plot taking us down unexpected paths with a number of plot reversals which leave us wondering where the truth really lies.  Little things in life matter on this desolate island where Johnnypateenmikes’s mundane news makes life more endurable.  In Inishmaan there are many cruel ironies, but one must go on living. 

The author has the audience irresistibly empathetic to these idiosyncratic, endearing but fallible characters, even the most bizarre.  They say outrageous things to and about each other.  The truth hangs heavily in their banter and sarcasm.  

One observes Kate talking to stones, Mammy drinking her Poteen, Bartley having his “sweetie” obsession and Helen exhibiting her sadistic streak.  Each character is crippled or feckless, especially contrasted to Billy.  Yet it is Billy, the literal cripple, who contrives to leave Inishmaan in pursuit of the dream of a better life.  Another day of sniggering, or the patting me on the head like a broken-brained fool.  The village orphan.  The village cripple, and nothing more.  Well, there are plenty round here just as crippled as me, only it isn’t on the outside it shows.

Adam Petherbridge Photo by Alicia Donelan

Billy is imaginatively played by PBD newcomer, Adam Petherbridge.  This demanding role requires a high degree of physicality, as well as serious acting skill.  Both are on display here, Petherbridge walking with a twisted leg and foot and deformed arm along with constant coughing and wheezing while creating a sympathetic character with insurmountable challenges.  Petherbridge inhabits this role.  He strikes the fine balance of being submissive to the mockery of his fellow villagers, yet possessing the insight and intelligence to con his way to America for a screen test in a film.  This is a scrupulously convincing actor who carries us achingly through his story.

Among his most devoted supporters are the eccentric and fussy sisters Kate and Eileen played respectively by Laura Turnbull and Elizabeth Dimon, two grand dames of the Florida stage.  They are orphaned Billy’s “pretend aunties” and as the story unfolds, we learn that they have been raising Billy since his parents drowned shortly after Billy was born.  The circumstances surrounding this event is one of the great mysteries of the play, and that story evolves, changes, and has a great bearing on Billy’s melancholy in addition to his physical disabilities.

Laura Turnbull and Elizabeth Dimon Photo by Cliff Burgess

The play opens with the aunties who tend the little town store.  Their opening dialogue is funny, revealing:  KATE: Is Billy not yet home?  EILEEN: Not yet is Billy home.  It is a harbinger of dialogue to come, where subjects and verbs are inverted, and repetition makes a humorous moment, and a reminder that if there is any difficulty the audience might have understanding the western Irish accent, listening to the whole statement will bring home the meaning.

If there was ever a vision of the kindly Irish grandma prototype, look no further than Kate and Eileen.  However, if any two characters manifest a sort of helplessness, a disability of the psyche, again look no further.  This is in sharp contrast to the boy they have cared for, who in spite of his physical limitations is a more fully realized person.  The “aunties” manifest their dependence on Billy by falling apart in his absence.  Both Turnbull and Dimon bring a wealth of acting experience to their roles, raising the humor bar with simply a look or gesture, popping the eyes or talking to a stone.

Harriet Oser and Colin McPhillamy Photo by Cliff Burgess

Dominating the play with his outrageous brio in a staggering performance is Colin McPhillamy who plays the pompous town crier, Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal.  Larger than life, he intensifies an already hilarious role playing opposite his alcoholic “Mammy”, whose care of her falls amazingly short of the dutiful son!  He barters his exaggerated mundane news for food at the sisters’ store and elsewhere to make himself feel important.  The more scandalous the better.  In fact there is a touch of Schadenfreude in his reports : My news isn’t shitey-arsed.  My news is great news.  Did you hear Jack Ellery’s goose and Pat Brennan’s cat have both been missing a week?  I suspect something awful’s happened to them, or I hope something awful’s happened to them.  He puts down Billy constantly, but there is a back story to his relationship which is ultimately revealed along with our change of heart toward him.

Adelind Horan, Adam Petherbridge
 Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
And what would an Irish play be without a love interest and that person originating in the most unlikely form: shrewish Helen.  Young and attractive, she can be foul-mouthed and vicious, an expert at humiliating anyone who crosses her path while she leads around her clueless young brother, Bartley who is fascinated by telescopes.  Helen is played by Adelind Horan, another PBD newcomer, who saw this play when she was 10 years old and knew then that she wanted to become an actor and play Helen.  Her wish is the audience’s delight.  “Slippy Helen” is hell on wheels yet Horan knows how to express a tender moment when needed, revealing her latent sensuousness.  We are struck by her tomboyish behavior throwing her legs wide on any table surface and yet managing to reveal the blossoming woman waiting to be loved.

Wesley Slade’s Bartley McCormick (PBD debut) is the perfect comic foil, especially enduring his sister’s sadism, always hanging around the store looking for sweet Fripple-Frapples, or Mintios.  Slade’s body language and popping his cheeks when bored (which is most of the time) are priceless.  His inexplicable fascination with telescopes is one of those many repetitive subjects that are ripe for humor.  Slade captures these moments on stage in exaggerated and inartful poses slinging his body into absurdly awkward positions.

Adelind Horan, Wesley Slade
 Photo by Alicia Donelan
Babbybobby Bennett is played by the always dependable veteran of many PBD productions, Jim Ballard.  He has the darkest role in the play and brings a frightening menace to his character.  He provides the means of escape for Billy in a touching scene where you see him melt into compliance.  Much later, Babbybobby discovers that he was seriously deceived and finds a violent way to repay his being taken advantage of.  Babbybobby is yet another damaged person, his young wife having died from TB, leaving a permanent scar which Ballard’s performance heightens. His is a fine portrayal of the hardships demanded by living on a stony remote island and being a dark force in the play.

The cast is rounded out by PBD veterans of many plays, Dennis Creaghan as the straight-talking, small-town Doctor McSharry who is in constant astonishment at Johnnypattenmike’s complicity in providing liquor to his elderly mother, Mammy O’Dougal, alternately hilariously and cantankerously played by Harriet Oser.  Doctor McSharry warns Johnny that when his Mammy dies he’ll cut out her liver to show him the damage to which Johnny says: You won't catch me looking at me mammy's liver. I can barely stomach the outside of her, let alone the inside. But far from the good Doctor’s assumption, Johnny’s supply of Poteen for his Mammy, a highly alcoholic drink made from potatoes, is really an act of love.

Director J. Barry Lewis profoundly understands the challenges of Irish theatre, focusing on a text analysis of The Cripple of Inishmaan which draws on traditional and native customs, and establishes the characters foibles without them becoming stereotypes.  He finds the “spine” of the work in Bartley’s line: “It never hurts to be too kind.”  He capitalizes on the play’s inconsequential acts which become “heightened actions.”

Lewis taps into McDonagh’s mix of realism and humor.   Timing is everything and Lewis plays along with McDonagh’s poking fun at a negative national identity, a humorous leitmotif throughout the play, various characters making observations at different points in the play about why people would want to come to Ireland, such as
JOHNNY: They all want to come to Ireland, sure.  Germans, dentists, everybody.
MAMMY: And why, I wonder
JOHNNY: Because in Ireland the people are more friendly.

You will hear the term “dark comedy” bantered about when discussing a McDonagh play.  As Billy says to Bartley: You shouldn’t laugh at other people’s misfortunes.  Perhaps that is the essence of dark comedy.  But this play is more of a character driven drama with comedy that is intrinsic to each of the characters.  You laugh more at their eccentricities.  It is satire, funny also because of careful timing and facial expressions.  This can be experienced only in live theatre.

Colin McPhillamy with Laura Turnbull and Elizabeth Dimon
 Photo by Alicia Donelan

Costumes acquire a special importance in this production.  Their design is by Franne Lee (PBD debut) who has Tony Awards for her Broadway productions of Candide and Sweeney Todd, and who even worked at Saturday Night Live (think iconic Cone Heads).  While she had the historical footage of Man of Aran to work with, she used a creative approach to define the individuality of the characters through their costumes.  Some are designed to inspire laughter, such as Johnnypateenmike’s long coat with cavernous pockets and all the gewgaws hanging around his waist to draw attention to his role as the bombastic town crier and buffoon.  Helen’s costumes reflect her younger age set, flimsier and short, while the “aunties” clothes with multiple long wool skirts and layers of long sleeved blouses and long aprons clearly denote the older generation.  Mammy’s little bonnet is, well, precious.  Babbybobby is attired to display his bludgeoning virility, first nearly shirtless with his yellow canvas pants and later with his long dark pea coat, Wellington boots and wool cap contrasting to Billy’s cobbled together pants and suspenders, suggesting  a fragile vulnerableness.

The scenic design by Victor Becker is representational and modular in nature, six different transitional designs connoting isolation and desolation.  As the set is monochromatic, Paul Black’s lighting accentuates color palettes, valuing tone and mood over starkly lit realism.  For example, in Act II after Babbybobby has discovered he was deceived, watch the lighting of his face, further establishing the dark, brooding, menacing nature of the man.  The lighting of the scene where the townspeople watch the Man of Aran captures the very essence of being in a theatre and we, the audience, being able to watch the reactions of the characters to the film.

Sound by Steve Shapiro conveys the unrelenting sea, the sound of seagulls at the opening while at the same time balancing those sounds of the hard life on the island with transitional, uplifting Irish folk music.

Special mention goes to the dialect Coach, Ben Furey.  The western Irish accent is highly distinctive and the cast seems to have captured that without (as so often happens) the audience paying a price in not understanding all of the words.  So we have the best of both worlds in this production, genuine Irish theatre and clarity as one becomes accustomed to the cadence of the dialogue.

And a call out to the man behind the scenes, Stage Manager James Danford, a tireless job to keep everything in the right place at the right time and things moving in a tight production.

Don’t miss a great evening (or afternoon) of theatre and join in the well deserved standing ovation.

Stage Photo by Robert Hagelstein