Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Theater review: McDonagh isn't afraid of terrorists, not a bit

Here kitty: Todd Van Voris and Nathan Crosby/photo by Owen Carey
By Barry Johnson

Some artists are just born to wave the red flag at the bull, bait the bear, flip off the constable. They just can't help themselves. And we, watching from the safety of our seats in the theater or the even more secure bunkers of the art museum, can go one of two ways. We say they are very brave or we say they are very crazy. And usually, depending on the identity of the bull maybe, even when we decide on "very crazy" we're glad they are crazy in this particular way. Because bravery, when it comes down to it, can be so closely connected to freedom.

So, right, what am I talking about? Martin McDonagh and the Artists Repertory Theatre production of his The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which opened on Friday, that's what. The bulls in this case are terrorists, specifically terrorists associated with the cause of Irish independence, and it's hard to imagine a greater provocation for these people, who, we must point out, have ample access to explosive devices, than The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

I don't want to make TOO big a deal out of this. The chances that an Irish bomber will take her latest flame to the theater, happen to see this play and then resolve to blow up McDonagh's car with him in it  aren't especially great, I suppose, though also non-zero. Maybe what The Lieutenant of Inishmore really measures is the waning power of terrorism in Ireland. But the insult he delivers to those bombers -- and by extension, any bombers -- is nonetheless breathtaking, probabilities aside.

McDonagh doesn't attempt to somehow rehabilitate his terrorists as complete human beings, with philosophies and emotions and everyday experiences, as Quentin Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction. No, he ridicules them in the most savage way -- and then he kills them off. 

Bob Hicks has already the heavy critical lifting on this play, writing for OregonLive and on his blog, Art Scatter. But maybe there are some things to add and maybe an impression to refine.

The entire population of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is either comically dim or twistedly dim, and it's McDonagh's special talent to blend the two, both on stage and even in one character. The prime example of the latter is the feared terrorist Padraic (Thomas Stroppel), whom we first encounter in the process of torturing a marijuana seller, a bloody business that begins with the removal of a couple of toes and has moved on to the business of nipples by the time we catch up to the actual action. Padraic is naturally violent, and naturally stupid, and he's a great comic character because the odor of danger accompanies his every gesture. McDonagh makes him a straight man, really, the kind of fellow who will abandon a a good torturing at the news his cat is feeling poorly. But his preening self-importance is comic in and of itself, emphasized by the pistols he brandishes, the ninja-black suit he wears and his sentimentality -- for Ireland, sure, but more for his cat.

We've mentioned the cat twice, and Wee Thomas, is a crucial plot device and prop. The bumbling duo (merely dim, not violently dim) at the center of things, Donny (Todd Van Voris) and Davey (Nathan Crosby), are in the middle of several inspired comic set-pieces that involve the cat's corpse and their attempts to create a replica cat. This does not go well, primarily because of the typical plague that besets rustic Irish comic characters -- the drink.

But really, we don't want to get into a complete dissection of McDonagh's comedy. We'll just add that the other comic "group" is a band of terrorists worried that Padraic is going to "splinter" from them and aggravated that he has injured a pot dealer who gives them a "tax" on very bag he sells. They are bunglers of the first order themselves, and somehow manage to turn a 3-to-1 advantage into a dead loss, mostly thanks to another strange McDonagh character, Davey's teen sister Maired (Ileana Herrin),  who is both a crack shot and sexually aggressive, another trait of the rustic. You want lusty, go to the country. It's crucial to the plot that she turns her love light on Padraic, and who knew that such a wisp of thing could turn the head of such a violent guy?

If you saw McDonagh's A Skull in Connamara at Third Rail, you know that McDonagh doesn't mind abusing human remains. Most of the gore Bob writes about about in connection to this play involves that sort of thing. It's comic stage gore, not realistic.  Those moments in The Black Swan when you have to turn away?  Here you groan and laugh. I don't think anyone who has seen an R-rated movie or one of the TV crime procedurals with visits to the morgue will find the play too violent or gory.

You laugh. This is a comedy. And so the actors have to work it.  Under the direction of Jon Kretzu, they do indeed work it. Van Voris and Crosby are hilarious together -- silly with just enough self-awareness to be able to laugh at their own bumbling.  The three terrorists -- Jake Street, Daniel Marmion and Will Mobley -- work their own insane byplay to maximum effect. (Don't you just hate when someone corrects the source of your quote?) And the love interests -- Herrin and Stroppel -- offer  a different spin on "crazy kids in love."

I am emphasizing the comedy here for a reason. If we are to believe Shakespeare, we've always allowed our jesters a certain freedom of speech -- as long as they are funny. (The same goes for those in their cups and those who are a wee bit daft. A lot of the comics I see on HBO combine the three -- daft, tipsy and transgressive (politically, socially, sexually) all at the same time.)

This is part of the reason we expect our artists and especially our comic artists to be freer than we are ourselves, to say things that we wouldn't or couldn't, either because of the repercussions or because the limitations we place on our own imaginations. McDonagh has made a career of rushing into this vacuum, the place of the unutterable, and cracking wise, obliterating limits and taboos and good common sense. He's a tough guy (in a Village Voice interview Hicks uncovered, he threatened to thrash fellow Irish playwright Conor McPherson) and writes tough-guy comedies for the most part (I'm a fan of his film, In Bruges, too).

Or maybe it's not "tough guy" at all. Maybe it's something even "tougher" than "tough guy." Maybe it's "I just don't give a damn." Because maybe tougher than tough is just a little crazy. Toro! Toro!

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