Posted by: strugglesome | March 9, 2011

Blood Wedding: Theatre Exile’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Author, statesman and philanthropist Mac of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia once intoned: “Laughs are cheap, I’m going for gasps”. And there may indeed be productions and pieces in which that is a clear and difficult choice. But in Theatre Exile‘s production of Martin McDonagh’s blood soaked battle field of a play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the audience is saved from such dilemmas by being given the opportunity to do both. In fact, often both happen at the same time, which seems to warrant some sort of health warning. Because is Irish playwright and internationally renowned sensation McDonagh is good at anything, it’s making you laugh with horror,  making the grotesque and bloodthirsty qualities of humanity seem hilarious, and making the audience and the actors need a good long shower when it’s all done. Or at least that’s the case with this particular work, whose sanguineous subject and gory execution literally spill “blood” all over the place. Oh, well, I suppose theater has to compete with action movies somehow.

And what is this plasma smeared play actually about? Well that’s rather a tricky question. Possible themes include  Irish Terrorism, sharp shooters, romance, bromance, methods of torture and, of course, cats. Padriac (pronounced Por-ick for those not well acquainted with the Emerald Isle, and played by Paul Felder)  is the youngest lieutenant of the INLA, or Irish National Liberation Army, a splinter group from the more “conservative” (if you can imagine such a thing) IRA. Madder then a march hare, as they say across the pond, Padriac spends his time tearing the toenails off drug pushers (assuming you think marijuana is a drug) and liberating Ireland from the foul English aggressor. Waiting faithfully at home in Inishmore lives Padriac’s sole friend and feline companion, Wee Thomas. Or does he? When Wee Thomas is found dead by Davey (Robert DaPonte) and Padriac’s father Donny (Pearce Bunting) , they are desperate to keep the news from their favorite sociopath, but given their complete incompetence, the cat is quickly out of the bag, so to speak. Padriac comes racing home to find militant and mooning Mairead (Elena Bossler) waiting for him, as well as several “friends” from the INLA (William Zielinski, Brian McCann and Andrew Kane) who have had enough of Padriac’s maverick insanity and are out for blood.

And blood there shall be, buckets of it, in fact, staining Brian Bembridge’s rather chaotic and confusing set and Alison Robert’s simple but effective costumes, with sprays of crimson. The home interior of Bembridge’s design is actually quite effective, but the surrounding space feels continually confused, despite attempts made to ground the location with tree branches a slightly extended stage (which is also very spiky around the edges, and I walked into it. Twice). But the issue Bembridge’s design really has is the space itself. The play is staged in Plays and Players Theater, a grande and gorgeous old space desperately in need of repair, but still dripping with Art Nouveau glamor. The theater is awash in an older style, and a huge and ornate proscenium is sadly at odds with the piece being performed inside of it. Luckily Thom Weaver’s efficient lighting design and James Sugg’s excellent soundscape feel at home regardless of the traditional nature of the space, and Aaron Cromie’s work with cadaver prosthetics is so gruesomely accurate and, dare I say it, life-like, that the audience winces with every pop of bone.

In a piece that depends so deeply on such high stakes and such extremes, the danger for actors becomes the risk of becoming a cartoon character, a challenge some of the artists have more trouble with than others. In general the first half of this production is less even then the second, and it seems to take some time for the cast to find a collective energy level and rhythm that sustains the piece and keeps the audience one step behind the action. While the show itself calls for volume on many levels, there are more ways to exhibit loud behavior then just yelling. The truth is that every actor on stage improves once they have a task in their hands, it allows them to stop begging the audience to look at what they are doing and actually organically do something. Bunting, McCann, Kane and Keith Conallen (whose one scene is one of the funniest of the show) hit the right balance of real and surreal right off the bat, deftly delivering exchanges like:

-Is it happy cats or an Ireland free we’re after?
-I’d like a combination of the two!

However, it takes more time for DaPonte and Bossler to convert from manic mugging to committed and controlled choices, and that conversion creates what almost feels like two separate identities for each of the two characters, they are one kind of person in the first half of the show and a completely different kind of person in the second half of the show. This could be attributed to a reaction to all the violent trauma, or it could result from the fact that everyone in the cast seemed to calm down and relax after the intermission.  Bossler especially transforms, hitting sweetly quiet notes in the later moments of the play that create a gentle contrast to her previous lock-jawed mannishness, and the audience can’t help but respond, even if it isn’t quite sure how it got there. Felder, our titular hero,  seems to vacillate between a supremely funny dryly violent pragmatist, and a demonstration of LeCoq‘s physiological gesture, reacting so strongly and physically to the death of his cat that he almost lives in the realm of clown. And while Padriac is supposed to be the most volatile and frightening character of the piece, it is Zielinski’s Christy, with his quiet menace, who holds the most power over the audience. At its best, this cast holds the spectator in its thrall, captivating us with their twisted humor and commitment to believable extremes, and at it’s worst, the actors can be too delighted by their own jokes to let the audience join them.

Part of what makes McDonagh such a popular and praised playwright is his ability to create such complete worlds in his works that are both farcically heightened and realistically relatable. If most people live on level 5 or 6, McDonagh’s characters in this play live on level 10, it’s a landscape of extremes, of fanatics, of a drunken logic that embraces both absolutely metaphor and absolute literalism with equal gusto. It’s a world in which everyone is capable and culpable of reductio ad absurdum, and director Matt Pfeiffer (who is also associate artistic director of Theatre Exile)  allows the production to revel in this, pacing the production so that lightening fast exchanges run between quiet moments of deadpan. This is a play that goes exactly where the audience wants it to go, and Pfeiffer milks those moments well, granting the viewer the extreme satisfaction of wish fulfillment.  There may be shocks in this production, but there are no surprises, and that’s a good thing. If we are truly honest with ourselves then we can admit we aren’t surprised by the human capacity for violence and fanaticism, in fact, we are actually amused by it, a fact that is as troubling as it is accurate. So if we return home deflated after such a fast-moving carnival of violent spectacle and cinematographic action, well, that may be the price we pay for laughing. After all, its all fun and games until someone gets blinded and shot in the head.

It needs to be said, while this production features talented performances and solid designs, the real heroes of the show are the run crew, who are left to clean up the mess.  Sarah Chandler as production manager leads a group that includes Thomas Shotkin as stage manager, Anya Anthony as assistant stage manager, Jamel Baker as blood master, Gloriana Rial as cadaver master, and Clara Elser, whose task I will not name  so as not to spoil any 11th hour reveals. I got a chance to peak in on the theater after the audience had cleared away and the actors had departed, and saw a busy crew of exhausted people wiping fake blood off of set pieces and soaking costumes in detergent in preparation for the next show. If you happen to see any of these people in passing, buy them a drink. They deserve it, and by the time they are done their work, the bars are already closed.

Theatre Exile’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore runs from now until March 13th. If you like blood baths, dead cats, pitch black comedy or IRA jokes (and why wouldn’t you?) pick up tickets here.

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