I first encountered the twisted genius of Martin McDonagh on a bus in Ireland. I was doing a month-long theatre intensive in Dublin, training during the week and traveling on the weekends. This particular excursion brought us to the majestic Aran Islands, an appropriate destination for one discovering McDonagh.
One of my friends in the program had just finished The Pillowman, and she declared that everybody here MUST read this play. “It’s the best play I’ve ever read. It will change your life,” she proselytized. And so began the passing of The Pillowman, and with it a steady conversion to this newly established church of McDonagh. As each person delved into the dark, disturbing, yet strangely comedic dialogue, they experienced a new level of theatrical enlightenment.
What strikes me about McDonagh’s work is how he pushes the boundaries of dark comedy, so far as to make me question my morality. He takes the most abhorrent, most repulsive, most unthinkable concepts—seemingly dredged from the darkest recesses of a psychopathic mind—and makes them into not only hilarious plotlines, but…dare I say… endearing characters. I’m disturbed to confess that I have felt sympathy for a child murderer, that I’ve rooted for a vengeful recluse who goes chopping off hands, and that I’ve laughed at dead cats. I mean, you have to understand—I love kids. More importantly, I love cats. My feline companion is purring away in my lap as I write this, and with each little rumble of his contentment I feel a twinge of guilt. But such is the brilliance of Martin McDonagh. Like it or not, he challenges you as an audience member, and dares you to engage with a dark, albeit loathesome, side of humor.
In the case of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, McDonagh combines hyperbolical acts of violence with a candid Irish attitude, resulting in a ludicrously hilarious brainchild.
But the writing is only the skeleton of a play, and I have to say the production value of this show made for one beefy human being. From set designer Laura Fine Hawkes’ ode to the rocky landscape of the Aran Islands to the hyperrealism of the props and special effects, I found myself immersed in McDonagh’s twisted world. Everything from the projectile blood spattering to the prosthetic severed body parts was wonderfully over-the-top and ridiculous. However, amidst the all craziness of McDonagh plays, there needs to be a sense of groundedness, and I look to the actors to provide that. In past McDonagh works I’ve seen, I’ve noticed that actors can sometimes get caught up in the outrageous energy and lose touch with the honesty of their characters’ emotions. Exaggerated performances only weaken the comedic impact of McDonagh’s writing, which is quite absurd to begin with. I feel that the more sincerely invested an actor is in the moment—the more real the situation, no matter how ridiculous, is to his character—the more the audience can suspend disbelief and the more the comedy can flourish. An exaggerated, “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS CRAZY THING HAPPENED! LOOK HOW WIDE MY EYES ARE!” performance is didactic and quite honestly insulting. I can recognize that the situation is funny without the actors shoving it down my throat.
But I’m relieved to say that there wasn’t too much overplaying in this production, and that the actors (if not 100% of the time) played the truth in their characters’ moments instead of milking the comedy. Chris Pine particularly surprised me as Padriac, a ruthless brute with a fervent passion for cats. His unfaltering Irish brogue and his sincere investment in the ludicrous character were highly impressive. Zoe Perry was also memorable as the rebel-wannabe tomboy Mairead, and her coolly assertive confidence provided a refreshing contrast to the otherwise frenetic energy of the play. Coby Getzug (Davey), a recent graduate from LACHSA, also delivered a fine performance. Though sometimes it seemed like he was more focused on clear line delivery than emotional investment, making his performance overly emphatic at times, he began to grow on me as the play progressed. There was no question of character commitment on Getzug’s part and he threw himself into the role full throttle, so even his more exaggerated emotional choices proved to work for the character. The rest of the cast, including Irishman Seán G. Griffin as the hilarious drunk Donny, as well as Andrew Connolly, Ian Alda, Kevin Kearns, and Brett Ryback, all performed their parts with zealous energy and dedication. Everyone seemed to be having a great time on stage, and that enjoyment penetrated the audience.
Director Wilson Milam’s subtle comedic touches, such as the decision to make Davey’s beloved bicycle pink, further enhanced the production, as did the all out gore-fest. Let it be said that those with aversions to blood (and graphic violence and animal cruelty) would not enjoy this production. I admit I did have to shield my eyes at one point, and when I looked again I saw a horrified older woman waddling out of the theatre as fast as her arthritic knees could carry her.
This is not a typical nice-evening-at-the-theatre play. But it’s McDonagh, and it’s feckin’ awesome, loveen.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore is running at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles until August 8. 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90012 http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=6885