AstonRep Theatre Company at Raven Theatre. By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Derek Bertelsen. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Critics often use Quentin Tarantino's films as a reference point for Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's theatrical style, and with good reason. Both pioneered a splatter intelligentsia of sorts, pushing the decency limits of their mediums by mashing classic thriller tropes with modern, brutal pulp aesthetics. Both are political button pushers; between them, there hasn't been a race or creed not exploited. Their stories end with comparable body and limb counts—not even kids or kitties are safe—but the most interesting and key ability they share, and arguably the one that sets them apart from their many lowbrow imitators, is one you have to listen for.
It's a quality demonstrated in one of The Lieutenant of Inishmore's early scenes, where too-impulsive-for-the-IRA militant Padraic (John Wehrman) strings up a small-time weed dealer for a citizen interrogation session, knife in hand. There's plenty to wince at (the penance for dealing dope to kids, he says, is the accused's nipple of choice), but McDonagh's mastery of rhythmic, wickedly playful dialogue makes it impossible to fully tune out. It's all too lip-bitingly funny, too suspenseful to dismiss, unpalatable as it is. Viewers are in conflict with their own senses, a desire for story trumping squeamishness. Even in the darkest stories, like his acclaimed The Pillowman or 2008 film In Bruges, violent, high-stakes situations often reveal themselves to be sophisticated set-ups for the tension-breaking, blacker-than-black comedy to follow.
Derek Bertelsen's production for AstonRep is in on the joke, and it sure is eager to get to it, more often than not at the expense of the meatier tension that proceeds it.
While Padraic is out of town pipe-bombing his way to independence, a town eejit (Matthew Harris) bikes across Padraic's childhood black cat, mutilated. Expectedly, hearing the news about partially-decapitated Wee Thomas from his father (Scott Olson) sends the soldier home on a bloody goose chase through town and IRA splinter groups for his kitty's killer.
Inishmore marks the second installment in a never completed trilogy, and it ranks among the most outrageous penned by McDonagh. Unlike his other works, in which the anti-hero sentiments and empathy are more in balance, this 2001 play feels like a cheeky all-out assault. There's a brilliant scene late in the play where blood-smeared Padraic stands a few feet in front of the mindless carnage he creates, and then waxes poetic about how he just wants the children of Ireland to be free. More than stage blood or bones (delightfully grisly props by Jeremiah Barr), it's easy to imagine the mirror McDonagh held up to Irish viewers about their history and seedier elements of its independence movement is what led to the play's early provocation and sharpened the one-act play's edge.
The Departed soundtrack punk music cues and a wry self-awareness—even a marquee-sized set piece establishing the town as Inishmore—make it clear in Bertelsen's production this is supposed to be a romp, which dulls the edge a bit.
Nora Lise Ulrey helps add some mystique and depth to Mairead, a BB gun–toting little sister who throws herself into the mess in a stepping stone effort toward revolution. Among the many monsters in McDonagh plays, women sometimes bear the most bite with the least story or humanity to inform it—here, besides the errant body parts, ironically, it feels like the element most fleshed out.