Marin offers a real beauty of a Queen

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Beth Wilmurt (left) as Maureen, Rod Gnapp (center) as Pato and Joy Carlin as Mag star in Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Joseph Salazar’s Ray watches telly while Carlin’s Mag waits for the news. Photos by Kevin Berne

Watching Joy Carlin work her magic Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the epitome of theatrical delight. Here you have one of the great Bay Area actors offering a sly, darkly humorous, even compassionate portrayal of a woman who could easily be described as a nightmare. Carlin, like the character she’s playing, appears to be a lovely older woman. But perhaps unlike Carlin, Mag is something of a sociopath. And that’s a trait she’s passed along to the youngest of her three daughters, Maureen, played with sinewy gusto by Beth Wilmurt.

That mother-daughter relationship is the crux of Beauty Queen, and the source of its humor, its drama and its horror. Director Mark Jackson’s production for Marin Theatre Company etches that relationship with realism and a savory dash of melodrama. Neither Carlin nor Wilmurt is a scenery chewer, so everything they do comes from character and is directly invested in their mutual dependence/hatred. These marvelous actors create a finely detailed portrait of a mother and daughter that is so fraught, you flinch and still you can’t turn away.

McDonagh’s play (now 17 years on since its premiere in Ireland) is a soundly constructed dramatic work that puts on a good show, involves its audience and delivers something with heft and abundant laughs. It’s hard to ask for much more from a two-hour evening of theater. Set in a remote village in western Ireland, the action simply involves a needy, manipulative mother (she’s 70 but acts much older) and her 40-year-old spinster daughter who is stuck with care-taking duties and has never had much of a life of her own.

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From the start, there’s something sinister in this little house – evoked by Nina Ball’s wall-less kitchen/living room set adrift on a stage full of cloudy vagueness and illuminated by York Kennedy’s precise light. Sweetness and light do not dwell here. While Maureen makes endless cups of tea, porridge and vitamin drinks for her carping mother, she jokes about decapitating the old woman and spitting down her neck. And for her part, mother dear wastes no time telling a potential suitor (the estimable Rod Gnapp as Pato Dooley) about her daughter’s stint in a mental institution.

Eventually, the play turns into a sort of Whatever Happened to Baby McJane?, but director Jackson and his excellent cast – which also includes the testy Joseph Salazar as Pato’s brother Ray – don’t go for sensationalism as much as cringe-inducing shock. McDonagh’s play really is a horror show, and when something as sweetly old-fashioned as delivering a love letter goes terribly awry, the results are particularly gory.

But it’s not just about the horror, either. There are interesting wrinkles with characters who may be more divorced from reality than they realize, and that gives the actors even more deliciously meaty moments to play.

The Irish accents, well, they come and they go, but even if they vanish, clarity remains. And really, the most extraordinary thing about this production is the tension between Wilmurt and Carlin, two ferociously good actors creating a mother-daughter bond that is palpable. And terrifying.

Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Be-handle with care: lost in Spokane

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The best two things about SF Playhouse’s A Behanding in Spokane are Rod Gnapp (left) as Carmichael and Alex Hurt as Mervyn the receptionist. Below: Gnapp surprises Daveed Diggs as Toby and Melissa Quine as Marilyn. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

What did Spokane, Washington ever do to Martin McDonagh? The London-born, Ireland-identified playwright famously wrote six plays, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, in a year and then moved on to film. His short film, Six Shooter, won an Oscar, and he was nominated again for his screenplay to In Bruges (which he also directed).

Then the fiercely talented McDonagh returned to the stage with his first play set in America. A Behanding in Spokane, which ran on Broadway in 2010, is clearly a McDonagh play, what with the desperation, the black comedy and the flying body parts. But this is minor McDonagh, and, in fact, Behanding is a pretty lousy play.

The characters are, at best, sketched in, and the thrust of the play is that cruelty breeds loneliness, young people are idiots and racism is hilarious. There are moments of tension in the play, but they just as quickly go slack, and a 90-minute play ends up feeling like a needlessly prolonged sketch.

Bay Area audiences get their first whack at Behanding in a sturdy production from SF Playhouse, efficiently directed by Susi Damilano and cast with four appealing actors. But try as they might, this team can’t make much of a play that lets them down at every turn.

Rod Gnapp, no stranger to intensity on stage, is Carmichael (a role originated on Broadway by the King of Quirk himself, Christopher Walken), a stranger in town looking for the hand that a group of bullies supposedly removed – with the help of a speeding train – 27 years before. In a stained and decrepit hotel room (realistic set by Bill English), Carmichael is in the midst of a deal gone bad. Two young con artists, Daveed Diggs as Toby and Melissa Quine as Marilyn, have failed in a big way to deliver what they had promised: Carmichael’s long, lost hand.

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Attempts to create tension involving candles in gas cans, handcuffs and guns flare up and fade quickly. The plot, such as it is, goes nowhere, and the play’s conclusion is confusing, sentimental and ridiculous.

Gnapp’s performance as Carmichael delves into some depth, but the skilled actor can only go so far before McDonagh’s shell of a character just crumbles. Alex Hurt is superb as Mervyn, the spaced-out guy from the reception desk who kinda wants to be a hero and kinda has a death wish. For some inexplicable reason, he has a direct-address monologue to the audience that, while funny, is completely out of step with the rest of the play. At least Mervyn offers a fresh perspective on this strange hybrid of noir-meets-Western – film tropes that fail connect on stage.

When Carmichael and Mervyn begin to connect – psychopath attracts psychopath – the play comes to life in a way it hasn’t, but then that promise fades into that previously mentioned horrible ending.

And then there’s the casual racism that’s supposed to be funny, funny in a way that exposes how horrible and out of date it’s supposed to be. But McDonagh has thrown this element into the mix only halfheartedly. Are the nearly 20 mentions of the “n-word” really worth it in the end? Absolutely not – not funny, not interesting, not revealing.

[bonus interview]

I chatted with Behanding director Susi Damilano, actor Rod Gnapp and properties master Jacquelyn Scott for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane continues through June 30 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Theater review: `The Lieutenant of Inishmore’

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


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.”


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 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.