Friday, September 26, 2008

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Bang and Clatter/Cleveland

(The felines have it rough in Inishmore, although on balance they wind up looking better than our all-time favorite kitty, above.)

It’s a damn shame the term “black comedy” has been taken, signifying stories that draw humor out of often grisly or horrific scenes (ie. the wood chipper scene in Fargo). The term just doesn’t seem to do justice to some works.

For sure, there ought to be another description for the even blacker level of comedy found in the theatrical works of playwright Martin McDonagh, a man whose penchant for blood and guts is only topped by his mordant wit and drop-dead (you should pardon the term) hilarious dialogue that turns banalities into punch lines.

Like his play The Pillowman, which was given an extraordinary production by Dobama some time ago, McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore goes clomping into places most plays would tiptoe around. In this staging at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Cleveland, the subject is a gaggle of Irish misfits who have been raised on the code of blood and violence, and exhibit virtually no compunctions about torturing or snuffing each other for the most modest of sins.

Central to the action here is Padraic, a member of a wacko IRA splinter faction, the INLA, whose membership may be just one. Padraic, it is said, was too demented to be a member of the mother group, so he has given himself the rank mentioned in the play’s title as he goes about his psychotic business.

But trouble is brewing back home, where Padraig’s father Donny has been taking care of Wee Thomas, Padraig’s beloved black cat. Or ex-cat, since Davey, a young dude with extravagantly luxuriant red hair, carries in the feline corpse (a prop that looks a good bit better than our favorite cat) and claims he found it bashed on the road. Donny firmly believes Davey crushed the pussy’s skull intentionally, but their immediate concern is to make sure Pardraig doesn’t blame them for the pet’s death.

So they nab an orange cat from Mairead, a boyish-looking local girl who amuses herself by shooting the eyes out of cows from long distance with her pellet rifle. The two lunkheads try to color the new cat with boot black to look like the dearly departed tabby, with predictably unfortunate results. Meanwhile, a threesome of IRA-related hotheads is plotting to take out Padraig, with Mairead lurking in the shadows, hearing the plot and eager to find a way to ingratiate herself with Padraig.

This 90-minute one act exerts comical tension from the first scene, under the tight direction of Sean McConaha. Unless you are too squeamish at the sight of blood and the occasional dismemberment-by-handsaw, you will find yourself laughing in spite of yourself. And the final confrontation, although not as drenched in as much plasma as one might expect, is a stumbling ballet of pointless revenge and free-floating idiocy.

But humor is the primary driving force in this script. Take the scene where Padraig (a sterling, sulky Sean Derry) has strung up a young fellow named James who’s been selling drugs to school kids. Having already removed two of the trussed chap’s toenails, he is about to perform a nipple-ectomy on him when Padraig gets a phone call from his dad. In a trice, Padraig is almost in tears as he learns that Wee Thomas “is feeling poorly,” part of Donny’s plan to let his son down easy. The ensuing interplay is priceless as the torture victim (Michael Danner) tries to console his torturer (“It’s probably just ringworm.”) between James’ own screams of pain.

As Davey, Ryan McMullen tosses “fick” and “feck” (the equivalent in this nasty little corner of Ireland for “fuck”) around with practiced ease. And D. Michael Franks exudes a stolid and fatalistic presence that makes Donny more amusing than he has any right to be. The three thugs are played by Daniel Taylor, Stuart Hoffman and Rick Heldenfels with brash confidence fed by a paucity of IQ points.

Bethany Taylor does a sufficient job of fashioning Mairead as an intriguing mystery, but she isn’t strong enough in her scenes to make her role in the surprising denouement entirely believable. Also, her pinned up hair doesn’t cut it, preventing her from capturing the look of an androgynous outsider who might harbor more stealthy motivations.

Aside from being at times side-splittingly (again, pardon) funny, Inishmore is actually a brilliant commentary on the violence that pervades societies around the world. Any culture that can kill easily and with little moral disgust is the true obscenity, and this play points the finger of responsibility while cackling into the echoing darkness.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore Through October 19 at the Bang and Clatter Theatre, 224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, 330-606-5317

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