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What if you write a play whose every character is either hapless or vengeful or sociopathic? Where mindless, relentless, stomach-turning violence escalates to piles of body parts literally littering the stage? What if you create characters utterly devoid of human warmth, sympathy or empathy? And what if all this senseless, bloody mayhem is the result of one man killing another man's cat?
People will laugh, that's what.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore, by the acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, is a play about what happens when a disagreement becomes a fight that becomes a war, that becomes a crusade, that becomes splinter factions with their own agendas and ever more creative forms of violence. It's about having lost all sense of perspective and having been so desensitized that we fall back on sentimentality.
The craziest character of all, Padriac, really loves that cat he hasn't seen for 15 years. (Nostalgia is another great escape.) And who is innocent in all this? Not us. We think it's funny.
Just good old boys
Is violence, like evil, really so banal? These people aren't Medea, Lady Macbeth, or towering demonic figures like Pol Pot or Idi Amin. They're just plain, ordinary Irish good old boys (and one sort of girl) whom you might find in a pub singing "Mother Machree." Yet they're torturing and killing with a kind of outright glee. Because of the cat? Is one dead cat worth four human lives? Don't answer that!!
Of course it isn't really about the cat. It's about noble causes that begin with big words (homeland, religion, honor, racial purity, patriotism)— ideas promulgated by politicians, religious leaders, and academics, by dreamers and patriots and singers of wistful, revenge-filled songs. It's about what happens when these lofty ideas are used to excuse any kind of behavior— when the idea or cause itself has been so perverted that it's left to wrecks of human beings like Donny (Pearce Bunting), Davey (Robert DaPonte), Padriac (Paul Felder) and Mairead (Elena Bossler) to finish it off.
And we laugh. Because it's funny? Probably not. A clever, talented playwright with a hilarious script (really!) and an excellent, well-directed cast have seduced us into thinking that this is just good fun and not about us at all. You may exit laughing, but it won't last. And that's a good thing.
"Is that a happy ending?" asked one woman on opening night. It sounded like a dumb question at the time, but not so dumb now. Is the only happy ending we can expect one where at least the cat— as it turns out— wasn't dead after all?
Two casting problems and a slightly ironic side note: Mairead is supposed to be 16 and Davey (her brother) even younger, a clear signal that a culture of brutality is taught/learned at early ages. Although Elena Bossler and Robert DaPonte are excellent in their respective roles, they look older than their characters, thus losing the dramatic effect of this important symbol.
The ironic side note: other than the fact that the superb special effects walk the fine line between looking too real or too cartoonish, one actor (Keith Conallen) must hang upside down for what seems to be a length of time bordering on real torture.
If you see this play, you too will laugh. And you'll think. And if you think long enough, you'll feel complicit in the mindless brutality that results not in revulsion or horror but rather in comedy at its darkest.♦
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here
To read a response, click here.
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