In her program notes on The Lieutenant of Inishmore, by Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, local playwright Stephanie Timm writes that "its characters cover every surfacewith blood until nothing and no one is left pure or unstained."
If only that were true.
By the end of McDonagh's gallows-comedy masterpiece about violent Irish hicks, the only thing defiled and stained is the script. The set holds four corpses (five, if you count the cat), genteel little pools of blood, and demure spatters of gore on the walls. The production not only fails to cover every surface with blood, it fails to get elbow-deep in the disturbing guts of McDonagh's hideously funny script, in which the playwright turns a blast furnace on rural radicals in Ireland—and, by extension, people and paramilitaries in poor places around the world. Instead of playing it straight and finding the comedy in real people trying to negotiate real mayhem, director Kurt Beattie has turned Inishmore into a light, neutered farce. Its paramilitary terrorists, who should be fucking terrifying—they can't give the play any stakes unless they're terrifying—are no scarier and no more revelatory than the Keystone Cops.
The first scene is good enough: A young, bug-eyed moron named Davey (MJ Sieber) walks into a rustic cottage holding a dead cat in his arms. Davey shows it to drunk old Donny (Seán G. Griffin), who freaks out. The dead cat belongs to his son "Mad Padraic" (Jeffrey Fracé), a torturer and assassin who was rejected by the IRA for being "too mad." Padraic, his father tells us, is going to demand several pounds of flesh in exchange for the dead cat, which was his only friend in the world. "Didn't he outright cripple the poor fella laughed at that girly scarf he used to wear?" Davey asks apprehensively. "And that was when he was 12?!" "His first cousin, too, that fella was," Donny says, "nivver minding 12! And then pinched his wheelchair!"
The second scene shows Mad Padraic in action—torturing a trussed-up drug dealer—when he learns that his cat is not well. Then he freaks out. This is McDonagh's first chance to scare us, to take us by the hand and yank us down the dark, bloody road in his mind. But director Beattie abandons that road for a lighter, more frivolous one, letting his characters mug and caper like they're in an Irish minstrel show. (Sieber, as Davey, is the worst offender, blowing out his cheeks and galumphing about the set like a cartoon.) These zanies, including three assassins from the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) who show up at Padraic's home, don't seem capable of throwing a punch, much less torturing each other with cheese graters and hot irons.
The one exception is Elise Hunt as Mairead, a small-town girl with an air rifle who dreams of joining the Irish revolutionaries. She, at least, seems to regard her character as a real human being with passions, flaws, and a center of gravity, instead of as a hollow buffoon. (Mairead has decorated her air rifle with sparkly girly stickers—the perfect metaphor for her combination of girlishness and violent idealism.) To function, Inishmore must terrorize its audience: The killers must be killers and its violence must feel threatening. This exchange, for example, in which Padraic is behind his dad, Donny (who is bound, kneeling on the floor), and the three INLA members burst in and draw their guns on him.
Padraic: You wouldn't be killing a fella in front of his dad, would ya?
Brendan: You're behind your dad.
Padraic: It's the principle I'm saying, ya thick, Brendan.
Brendan: Oh, the principle.
Padraic: Dad, you wouldn't want to see me killed in front of you, would ya? Wouldn't it be a trauma?
Donny: I couldn't give a feck! Weren't you about to shoot me in the fecking head, sure?
If the audience isn't at least a little afraid that any of those guns could go off at any time, the scene loses its tension and its comedy. These men are idiots, to be sure, but they must be frightening idiots, who inadvertently mock themselves with McDonagh's satire, wit, and bank-shot subversion. Barring Hunt, nobody in this production (least of all director Beattie) seems to believe that. It's as if they condescended to the material—Look at these stupid, droll brutes! Aren't their silly antics so diverting!—instead of putting their shoulders into it.
A mountain of small technical choices serve as evidence of this fundamental misunderstanding: The gunshots sound like cartoon gunfire, played over the theater's speakers, instead of coming from blanks fired onstage. (If we don't fear the gunfire, the guns cannot be scary.) All these hicks' shoes (Dr. Martens, Converse, boots) are shockingly pristine, as if everyone had just gotten back from the mall instead of mucking around the most punishing, desolate countryside in Ireland. Perhaps most egregiously, the set is embellished with stones sparkling with green glitter. Green glitter. As if this were a diorama at Epcot fucking Center. An audience cannot possibly feel the slightest fear of violence in such an environment—which means the play cannot do its work.
It's a damn shame. An embarrassment, really. Producing a half-assed McDonagh is like publishing a bowdlerized Baudelaire or rerecording Pogues songs as elevator music: You could do it, you could amuse a few dullards while doing it, and you might even make some money while doing it.
But why would you bother?
Last weekend, a small, new theater company called Boom! achieved what ACT and Beattie failed to do: mount a moving, funny, occasionally terrifying play about real people reacting to real mayhem. You enter Taphonomy through a damp doorway beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct—just a few steps from people reeking of cheap booze, huddling under filthy wool blankets—accompanied by a stern-looking pair in military fatigues, carrying rifles. The walls of the small theater are covered in ominous graffiti—"safe house 5 mi.," "you have to expect setbacks"— while a tall figure in a gas mask looms in the corner.
Performed in short scenes that interrupt each other with the speed of a film instead of a play, Taphonomy (the title refers to the study of decomposition) posits a "zombie infection" that erupted 25 years ago and has turned America into Armageddon. Rogue marines fight their way from abandoned building to abandoned building, trying to stay alive. Isolated scientists work in makeshift labs, trying to understand zombie metabolism and develop a vaccine for the disease. An aristocracy of people hides underground the way nobles hid in an abbey in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." Kids form street gangs that fight the zombies and each other. Instead of focusing on zombie-movie clichés, the production honestly wonders what it'd be like to live in a world under siege. People fight over access to food and drugs, negotiate shifting alliances, forget their history (one character references Christ and another asks, "Who's that?"), wonder about their attackers ("Do zombies have thoughts?" "Do zombies poop?"), betray each other, do kindnesses for each other, and occasionally have to shoot each other if someone gets infected with the zombie disease—in other words, they behave like real human beings reacting to real mayhem.
The company uses the creepy warren of its building to maximum effect, slamming doors and walls, moaning loudly from a distance, letting the sounds drift through layers of Sheetrock and wood. When their violence runs into technical limitations, they use blackouts and flashlights to let our imaginations do what their budget cannot. A few of the characters are goofily overwritten—a guy from New Jersey curses Pagliacci pizza (we've forgotten Christ but we remember Pagliacci?) and a researcher shouts "Eureka!" in a nerdy, nasal whine.
But these wrinkles are intermittent and small in light of what Boom! achieved last weekend. They created a truly harrowing gallows comedy out of whole cloth while ACT squandered an established gallows-comedy masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Taphonomy closed this week. Let's hope for a remount someday.