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Part of his Aran Islands Trilogy, which also includes The Cripple of Inishmaan and the unpublished The Banshees of Inisheer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a comically violent play about the stupidity of violence.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.

Countdown to ACT’s `Carol’

James Carpenter (center) is Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is in full swing in downtown San Francisco. Rather than reviewing this holiday perennial, let’s just hit some of the major points. Herewith, in descending order, some reasons to see the show. (To read the complete list, visit my theater page here.)

10. Before and after the show you get to wander around the festive Union Square area, which, despite the general mood of the nation, is rich with decoration and holiday cheer. The ice rink in Union Square, just under the enormous, beautifully decorated tree, is especially nice.

9. The special effects, especially where the ghosts are concerned, are marvelous. The first appearance by Jacob Marley’s ghost is a doozy, and the giant Ghost of Christmas Future is creepy in all the right ways (young audience members should probably be at least 4 years old to see this show).

8. During the Fezziwig’s ball, choreographer Val Caniparoli goes to town with the joyous dancing. His moves for the children are especially charming.

7. Speaking of children, the youngest members of the cast are wonderful. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Noah Pawl Silverman St. John is a notable Boy Scrooge, and Lauren Safier is a whirlwind of affection as his sister, Little Fan.

6. The not-so-enjoyable aspects of the production (the sketchy set, the wan music) are trumped by the better aspects of the show and by the story itself. That Charles Dickens knew a thing or two about entertaining while moralizing.

5. Nicholas Pelczar adds a welcome jolt of real holiday feeling as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. His unfurling of a red scarf as a gift for old Ebenezer is one of the show’s simplest yet most enduring images.

4. The costumes by Beaver Bauer are gorgeous and funny (see No. 3). The colors, textures and patterns swirl around the stage like a confectioner’s dream.

3. The dancing Spanish Onions (Isabella Ateshian and Ella Ruth Francis), Turkish Figs (Rachel Share-Sapolsky and Kira Yaffe) and French Plums (Megan Apple and Megumi Nakamura) bring a whole lot of charm to the Ghost of Christmas Present’s dissertation on abundance.

2. Some great Bay Area actors sink their considerable chops into delicious supporting roles. Ken Ruta as the ghost of Jacob Marley is a delight, as is Sharon Lockwood as Scrooge’s char woman, Mrs. Dilber, and as the festive Mrs. Fezziwig. Jarion Monroe, in a curly red wig, is adorable as Mr. Fezziwig, and Cindy Goldfield and Stephen Barker Turner are warm and fuzzy as the Cratchits, impoverished only in economic terms.

1. James Carpenter’s performance as Scrooge is reason enough to see this production. He’s a brilliant actor and breathes life into this chestnut of a character. The production surrounding him isn’t always up to his level, but he lifts the entire experience to an appropriately Dickensian level.
You can also read my review of ACT’s A Christmas Carol in the San Francisco Chronicle here.


A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 27 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $18-$102. Call 415-479-2ACT or visit

Photo at right: Ken Ruta is the Ghost of Jacob Marley in ACT’s A Christmas Carol. Photo by Kevin Berne

Humbug! Here we come a-`Carol’-ing

James Carpenter plays Ebenezer Scrooge “dead seriously.”

“It’s just like when you play farce,” Carpenter explains. “You don’t play it funny. You have to invest as fully as you can.”

Carpenter, 56, one of the Bay Area’s most revered actors, is now in his third year as Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s re-tooled production of A Christmas Carol, and he’s as passionate as ever about the role and the production.

“I’m always trying to find something new and different,” he says. “It’s the only way a piece of theater can stay a live. Without discovering something new, it will die – and deservedly so.”

No chance of Carpenter’s Scrooge (seen at right, photo by Ryan Montgomery) withering and fading. Working alongside ACT’s MFA students and the novice actors in the Young Conservatory, Carpenter is alive to the challenge of bringing Dickens’ anti-hero to the fullest life possible and making his redemption after a night of ghostly visitation a moving experience for all.

“I’m not a religious man,” Carpenter says, “but I’m a spiritual man. If we are to evolve as a species, spiritual evolution is the direction.”

Scrooge exemplifies that evolution, which may be one reason the Dickens tale remains so popular 165 years after it was written.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the Bay Area’s productions of A Christmas Carol.

  • American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol (starring James Carpenter as Scrooge) opens today (Thursday, Dec. 4) and continues through Dec. 27 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14-$102. Call 415-749-2228 or visit
  • Center Repertory Company’s A Christmas Carol returns for an 11th year with Jack Powell as Scrooge and runs Dec. 11-21 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $41. Call 925-943-7469 or visit
  • Moonlight Entertainment’s A Christmas Carol returns for a 23rd year and continues through Sunday, Dec. 7 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland. Tickets are $12-$15. Call 877-666-5448 or visit
  • Notre Dame de Namur University’s long-running musical version of A Christmas Carol, also called “The Gift” because it’s free (except for opening night) to the public, runs Dec. 5 through 13 on the NDNU campus in Belmont. Opening-night tickets are $20-$40. Call 650-508-3456 or e-mail
  • Ron Severdia plays all the parts in his one-man A Christmas Carol under the direction of Julian Lopez-Morillas. Ross Valley Players, along with Severdia’s Humbug Theatre, presents this award-winning solo performance Dec. 11 through 24 at The Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, 30 Sir Francis Drake, Ross. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 415-456-9555 or visit
  • Northside Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol, adapted and directed by Richard T. Orlando runs Dec. 10 through 24 at 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$20. Call 408-288-7820 or visit
  • ACT casts `Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ partners up for `Phedre’

    Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native who used to work at Recycled Records on Haight Street, plays Jan, the central character in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, an ACT production. Photo by Ashley Forrette Photography

    With all this buzz about, there must be a new theater season about to start.

    First up is news from American Conservatory Theater. Casting is complete for its season-opener, the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning Rock ‘n’ Roll, which begins performances Sept. 11 and continues through Oct. 12.

    Artistic director Carey Perloff, something of a Stoppard expert, is directing a cast that includes San Francisco native Manoel Felciano (Toby in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway) makes his Bay Area professional debut as Jan, the rock ‘n’ roll-obsessed Czech graduate student at the center of the play. The cast also includes ACT company members Rene Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Jud Williford and Jack Willis. The cast is rounded out by James Carpenter, Delia MacDougall, Marcia Pizzo, Summer Serafin and ACT MFA third-year students Nicholas Pelczar and Natalie Hegg.

    Previews begin Sept. 11 and opening night is Sept. 17. Tickets are $17-$62 for previews, $20-$73 for regular performances. Call 415-749-2228or visit for information.

    In other ACT news, the company will partner for the first time with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Perloff will direct Racine’s Phèdre in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who previously provided scripts for Perloff’s Hecuba and Antigone.

    The production, which will bow in the 2009-10 season, will star 17-year Stratford veteran Seana McKenna in the title role.

    “We are thrilled to be producing Racine for the first time in ACT’s history,” Perloff said in a statement. “Timberlake’s extraordinary and fresh translation pays homage to the gorgeous poetry of the original while sustaining this play’s explosive heat and visceral sexuality. I have admired Stratford’s work for many years an am excited to work at the theater, where Heather Kitchen, my partner at ACT, started her career.”




    Review: Aurora’s “The Birthday Party”

    (opened Feb. 1, 2007)

    Actors sizzle, plot fizzles in Aurora’s `Birthday Party’
    two and 1/2 stars A well-made muddle

    There’s an old saw about a tree falling in the woods, and if there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a noise — you know the one.

    Well, what happens when a play falls into a pit of murky inscrutability and there are plenty of people around to hear it? Does the noise even matter?

    That’s the question surrounding Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which opened Thursday at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Artistic director Tom Ross, who has found success with such signature Pinter works as The Homecoming and Betrayal, now tries his hand at Pinter’s first produced work.

    Since the play’s first London performance in 1958, which was not well received, Pinter has gone on to become, well, Pinter — one of contemporary drama’s most revered playwrights. He won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature and has influenced generations of writers.
    But what to make of this first effort, which, though entertaining, may be too obtuse for its own good.

    In this nearly 2 1/2-hour drama, Pinter deliberately withholds details to the most basic dramatic questions, which is sort of a cheat when it comes to creating dramatic tension. Then he makes us question the details we’re given, so there’s absolutely no point in trying to make sense of any of it.

    So without plot or characters to trust, what is there?

    In Ross’ sturdy production, we get some menace, some horror and, best of all, some marvelous Bay Area actors doing interesting things, even if they’re all ultimately just spinning their well-trained wheels.

    The story, such as it is, takes place in a dingy boardinghouse on the English seaside (Richard Olmsted’s highly wall-papered set is perfect). Meg (Phoebe Moyer) and Petey (Chris Ayles) run the place, though to call it a boarding house is a stretch because for at least the past year, they’ve only had one tenant.

    His name is Stanley, and when he makes his entrance down the steep staircase, he gets a laugh. As played by the masterful James Carpenter(above), Stanley is so run down and cranky, his woebegone appearance is a few bedrags below bedraggled.

    Amid the normal morning chatter about sour milk and news of the day, two men in suits arrive: Goldberg (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and McCann (Michael Ray Wisely(below left), possessor of the best bushy eyebrows in three counties).

    We don’t know why they’re their, but we know it’s mysterious and it has something to do with Stanley, who probably isn’t the concert pianist he says he is.

    Apparently there’s been a “betrayal of the organization,” which leads the men to put Stanley through a bizarre interrogation (complete with hyper-dramatic lighting by Christopher Studley). But that’s not as bizarre as the actual birthday party thrown by Meg for Stanley (who, true to form, swears it’s not his birthday).

    A game of blind man’s bluff, with special guest Lulu (Emily Jordan), ends with the lights out, violence and sexual mayhem.

    There are non-sequiturs everywhere. For example, Goldberg, who makes much of being Jewish but has probably stolen his identity from someone else, invites Lulu, whom he calls “a big, bouncy girl,” to sit on his lap. She says, in her nonstop flirtatious way, “Can I tell you something? I trust you.” To which Goldberg replies, “Gesundheit.”

    There’s a lot of sly humor in The Birthday Party, and that’s something that comes through in this production. Moyer is especially adept at pulling laughs from Meg’s cluelessness.

    But around about Act 3, and after the second intermission, the fun of this Party begins to wane, and the weirdness takes over. The plot becomes a water balloon bumbling its way through a pinball machine, and Pinter’s notions of power and abuse and the horror of conformity as a measure of success only go so far before we lose track of the darkness and are left with absurdity instead.

    For information about Aurora’s The Birthday Party, visit

    It’s aliiiiive!

    You know it’s a new world of technology when they start doing plays in podcast form.

    Trevor Allen’s Black Box Theatre Company is celebrating Halloween in a big way. On Monday night, which you might call Halloween Eve, Allen gathers a top-notch cast of Bay Area actors for The Creature, his own version of the Frankenstein story, this time told from the creature’s point of view.

    Kent Nicholson directs a cast that includes James Carpenter as the creature, Andrew Hurteau as Capt. Walton and Paul Silverman as Victor Frankenstein.

    The production will be performed before a live audience and recorded for broadcast in podcast form on Oct. 31 via

    “There are two sides to every tale,” Allen says. “This is the creature’s story.”
    Director Nicholson adds: “By telling the story from the creature’s point of view, we not only explore the ethical and scientific issues in the original story but it also becomes a story about alienation and the effect of being outcast as an `other’ in society.”

    The event is at 8 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. Visit or call (415) 731-4922 for information.