Theater review: `The Lieutenant of Inishmore’

Apr 23

Opened April 22, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 24!

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Padraic (Blake Ellis, front center) finds himself in a spot of trouble when he’s set upon by fellow terrorists from his Irish splinter group (from left) Brendan (Rowan Brooks), Christy (Danny Wolohan) and Joey (Michael Barrett Austin) in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. Photos by mellopix.com

 

Blood, cats and body parts: Just another night at Berkeley Rep
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The sweetly homespun fiddle and squeezebox music that starts the play, not to mention the wry “Home Sweet Home” needlepoint hung on the wall of the set, are but jokey contrasts to the carnage in store for audiences at The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Part of the “limited season” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, Inishmore is playwright Martin McDonagh at his McTarantino best. British by birth but born to Irish parents, McDonagh is hyper-Irish. If you’ve seen the other two McDonagh plays produced at Berkeley Rep, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1999 or The Pillowman in 2007, you know that he’s a darkly funny, violent, surprising and potent writer. He’s a sensational writer in every sense of the word, but the sensation usually hovers over something substantial.

Though McDonagh has been sucked into the Hollywood machine – he won an Academy Award for his short film “Six Shooter” and got another Oscar nod for best screenplay for his debut feature In Bruges – he should continue writing for the theater. Nobody combines humor, heft and horror in quite the same way.

Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters helmed the irresistible and deeply creepy The Pillowman, and apparently that dip into the choppy McDonagh waters wasn’t enough. Waters returns in fine form for Inishmore, which is best described as a theatrical gut buster of the highest order.

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Part of his Aran Islands Trilogy, which also includes The Cripple of Inishmaan and the unpublished The Banshees of Inisheer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a comically violent play about the stupidity of violence. A rogue terrorist named Padraic (Blake Ellis) was deemed “too mad” for the IRA, so he joined something called the Irish National Liberation Army. But he turned out to be too wacko even for them, especially when he started doing horrible things to drug dealers who were channeling funds to underwrite INLA activities.

In the middle of torturing a pot dealer (Daniel Kruger, whose admirable performance is delivered almost entirely with him strung by his feet and bleeding), Padriac receives a call from his dad with bad news: Padraic’s beloved black cat, Wee Thomas, has taken ill. The terrorist immediately sets to weeping for his feline friend, forgoes the nipple removal of his victim and makes a beeline for home in Inishmore.

Trouble is, Padraic’s cat isn’t ill. It’s dead. In the play’s gory opening moments, we’ve seen the cat’s brains ooze from cranium to table, much to the dismay of Padraic’s dad, Donny (James Carpenter), and a long-haired neighbor boy, Davey (Adam Farabee), who is accused of running over the cat on his mom’s frilly pink bicycle.

Taking a page from the terrorist’s handbook that says something like the surest way to a mad man’s heart is through his pet, some of Padraic’s old terrorist buddies, headed by the one-eyed Christy (Danny Wolohan in charming, slightly terrifying performance), seize upon the cat situation to deal with their personnel issues.

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Throw in a combustible love story involving Padraic and 16-year-old Inishmore native Mairead (Molly Camp, who couldn’t be fiercer if she were a tank, seen above with Farabee) along with enough firearms, knives, axes and saws to topple a large nation and you’ve got a recipe that’s sure to result in mayhem.

Speaking of mayhem, a huge amount of the play’s success is due to special effects artist Stephen Tolin of TolinFX. Tolin has a talent for blood effects, and the Roda is fairly dripping with the gooey red stuff. There’s so much of it that the effect is surprisingly comic, though many of the effects are real enough to make you cringe before you crack a smile. Without saying too much or lessening the impact of the crimson explosion, the clean-up crew, especially on two-show days, has its work cut out for it here as they mop up Antje Ellerman’s quaint Irish cottage set.

Director Waters has a real facility for disciplined, finely tuned comic performances. It would be easy for Carpenter and Farabee to become the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee of the play, but instead, they just keep getting more interesting as the violence escalates, with their characters trapped right in the middle of it all. Ellis, with his blond good looks, certainly doesn’t look the part of a mad terrorist, but nothing about Padraic is usual, and that’s what makes him so fascinating, terrifying and hilarious.

Wolohan and his henchmen, Rowan Brooks and Michael Barrett Austin, have a terrific scene full of camaraderie, hostility and delicious word play. And Camp’s Mairead, a terrorist in training, is the character you most want to follow into a sequel. But there may not be enough stage blood for such an undertaking.

With the actors slipping and sliding through pools of blood, The Lieutenant of Inishmore may actually be as dangerous as it pretends to be, but has a blood bath ever been so funny?

Says one observant Irishman to another: “It’s incidents like this does put tourists off Ireland.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore continues an extended run through May 24 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information. Half-price discounts are available for patrons younger than 30. $10 tickets for students and seniors available one hour before curtain.

To read a story I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about the blood, cats and special effects of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, click here.

3 comments

  1. Great review. I saw the New York production and there was a slight change. The opening scene was James hanging upside down with blood dripping from his feet. It really shocked the New York audience when I was there. Following that were the scenes in the Irish cottage. I have to say being mostly Irish and being raised an Irish Catholic, I had a ball watching this production again. I thought it was just as good as the New York production.

    Here some insites

    When it was first presented at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, people walked out because of the violence.

    Daniel Kruger who played the upside down James had to train to be hung up for 12 minutes and still emote. He told me that they started him out at 2 minutes and with certain physical training during the rehearsals and at home he was able to keep his the blood from rushing to his head for the whole 12 minutes. Douglas who does not appear in the second act must stay back stage with the “blood” covering his body so he can take a bow with the cast members at the end of the prodution. He says the “blood” gets very sticky.

    In New York, the cat comes out of his hole and walks across the board while the two characters are talking stage forward. The New York audience was breaking up while the Donny and Davey talking and not realizing that the cat was walking on the upper board.

    Terence the PR told me that every performance every drop of blood, the costumes and yet even the actor have a good wash down.

  2. The aran island trilogy can be better understood by learning more about the aran islands.

  3. Carla /

    Great review, Chad. And great site. — Carla

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