The Lieutenant of Inishmore
H H H H H
City Stage, 21 N. Front St.
$16 • www.citystagenc.com
Director Nick Basta assembles an incredibly talented group of people to bring his vision of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” by Martin McDonagh (the Quentin Tarantino of the stage) into full three-dimensional life. Hosted by City Stage, Basta has every detail down pat, starting with the pre-show music. He completely transports the audience, thanks to The Blarney Broughs, a local traditional Irish group consisting of Craig Thompson, Matt Malloy and Zach Hanner. Featuring fiddle, bodhran and penny-whistle, they easily and fluidly make the theatre feel like an Irish Pub, as singing, laughter and joy buoys up life in spite of its struggles.
Basta has an A-list cast. Cullen Moss plays Mad Padraic, a man so crazy even the IRA wouldn’t take him; he has left his island home of Inishmore to join a splinter group, The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Padraic’s father, Donny (Jon Stafford), has been left to care for Wee Thomas, Padraic’s cat and professed “only friend in the world.” Davey, a nearby well-meaning neighbor, discovers Wee Thomas dead on the road. By trying to do the right thing, he watches his life unravel before him, headed toward certain roads of torture and death. As if his problems aren’t severe enough, his younger sister, Mairead (Kendra Goehring-Garrett), wants to join the INLA and is so psychotic with militant rage, she alternately takes it out on cattle and her sissy older brother, Davey. Padraic, it turns out, is even crazier than the audience thought. James-the-pot-dealer and owner of Dominic the cat (Lance Oehrlein) can attest to this fact, and so the INLA decides they want to be rid of him. Enter the Colonel Kurtz-style team of operatives sent to deal with the problem: Christy (Shane Callahan), Brendan (Morgan Brown) and Joey (Zach Hanner). All converge on this small island and churn out a dark comedy filled with ultra-violence, blood and gore.
Dark comedy can be incredibly difficult to play. If it isn’t sharp and pitch-perfect the show quickly will deteriorate into a dark sludgy horror-film gone wrong. From the opening dialogue of Jon Stafford and Adam Poole, it is clear this is not going to be a run-of-the mill evening of laughs. I have mostly seen Stafford in dramatic roles where he has brought me to tears, furry and compassion—what comedic talent he has! He and Poole have great timing and chemistry together. This might be the best work of Poole’s I’ve seen to date. Their repartee is on point. Even when they are chopping up bodies together and filing fingerprints off corpses, they never miss a tick.
Perhaps the most surprising performance of the evening comes from Kendra Goehring-Garett. Blessed with the voice of an angel, we so often see Goehring-Garett in musicals. Though she does sing a capella—and one song with Cullen Moss that raises goose bumps—she plays the outlandish and unsettling role pitch-perfect. As the only female character onstage, she embodies the tremendous complex contradictions that encircle modern Irish womanhood. Decked out in her militant camo, looking all the world like Bernadette Devlin in the late 60s, she might be invisible to the patriarchal power structure onstage but she captivates the audience.
Cullen Moss as Padraic carries tremendous weight. He has to exude enough fear and life force to make the hold that he has on these people, even from miles away, believable. It could be so boorish, like his performance in “True West,” but what makes it work is that he plays it frighteningly sane. Padraic really believes Wee Thomas is his only friend and would easily kill multiple people for him. He genuinely accepts torturing drug dealers as a heroic act and that he is generous in his treatment of them.
It takes a lot of strength as an actor to run the gamut of emotions Moss manages. One minute he has us audibly moaning in empathy when he begins to cry for Wee Thomas, yet minutes before we laugh at one of his many horrific acts. If we don’t believe Padraic is as frightening and terrifying as everyone else does, the whole plot falls apart. Not only does Moss take us there, he and the cast hit the unspoken, the intended, the appalling, the comedy and all the unsettling, necessary notes to make it believable. They work together with remarkable cohesion. It takes a director with a really clear vision to keep a show like this gelled, and it takes a cast with not only talent but strong craftsmanship to not fall off course.
McDonagh is a very difficult item in the modern theatre world. In regional locations like Wilmington, big-name musicals tend to have better box-office draw than straight shows. Even then, usually, success comes with name recognition (Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, etc.). McDonagh is neither high-brow nor exceptionally well-known in spite of some crossover success with film (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”). Still, he appeals to people once they discover him. Actors especially love his work because he writes genuinely well-crafted scripts—sharp, witty and unexpected. It allows performers to really push themselves and display their craft in ways not frequently called upon.
An incredibly cinematic playwright, McDonagh pushes the boundaries of taste, human decency and discomfort. If Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” depicted the actual beheading onstage instead of the violence taking place out of the audience’s sight, it still couldn’t be as shocking as McDonagh on an off-day. What is most disturbing and alluring about his writing is that, like Quentin Tarantino, the audience cannot help but laugh at the outrageous and underlying humor he has built into this distressing script. Also like Tarantino, we oddly enough cannot help but root for the young lovers who are so passionately turned on by such outrage. In real life, we would cower from these people, but here we revel in them.
“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” presents an offbeat script well worth seeing. It is not suitable for small children or the easily frightened. Violence is graphically depicted onstage, but for a night of laughs and a chance to see great acting (Moss won encore Best Thespian for 2013), be sure to catch the show weekends through February 24th.