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San Francisco by Richard Connema

THEATRE WORKS PRODUCTION
OF
MC DONAUGH'S
CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
NOT UP TO THEIR USUAL STANDARDS

Theatre Works is presenting the Northern California Premier of Martin McDonaugh’s Cripple of Inishmaan as its last show of the 99-00 season. I had only wished it was a better ending to an excellent season that started with the World Premier of Ugly Duckling. I loved Martin McDonagh’s prior plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Lonesome West which we had seen on Broadway. I rated both of these plays on my top ten plays of the year when they played in New York. Maybe, because my family came from the Connemara section of Ireland, I could see some of my family attributes and short comings in his characters.

We first saw Cripple at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood in November of 1998. It was the West Coast Premier of the off Broadway play and it was the weakest of the three plays that we had seen, but it was superbly acted by a great cast of Los Angeles-New York actors who breathed life into the play. Fred Koehler, as Billy, gave a solid performance Max Wright, as Johnnypateenmike, was superb in the role of the village news hound who lives for gossip no matter how banal or outright stupid. He cast the right inflection on his Irish brogue and manner. The two aunts played by Deardhla Molloy and Barbara Tarbuck were outstanding in their role. In short, the acting saved the play.

Now, I was looking forward to see what Theatre Works would do with the play. This was the only company here in the Bay Area that could pull off this cartoon-like play andI am afraid that they just could not.

We have a play that takes us to one of Ireland’s three Aran Islands in 1934 and we see a tiny isolated community called Inishmaan. Nothing much happens here. In fact Johnnypateenmike, the town gossip, comes by every morning to the auntie's grocery store to tell them all the news in exchange for some eggs or whatever is handy. He tells them important news like a feud over a cat and a goose by two men, or a loose girl in the village. Billy, the central character, is a cripple and he is being taken care of by his make believe aunties since his parents were drowned at sea when he was a wee baby. It is unknown if they committed suicide because of his deformed body or if they were trying to drown the child and accidentally fell over in the boat. Billy is picked on by all of the town for his infirmities.

Billy wants to escape the island and the people but has no way of succeeding until the big news that Johnpateenmike announces one morning, a famous Hollywood director, Robert Flaherty, is going to make the docudrama Man of Aran on the island. Billy sees a chance to escape the island and maybe go to Hollywood if he can secure a part in the film. He manages to con a boatman to take him to the nearby island and he obtains a part in the film. The studio offers to send him to Hollywood where his special talents might be of use to the studio.

When he sets sail for America, to chase his dreams, he finds answers to questions he never could have found in Inishmaan. He also finds that those same answers lead him back to the island, a sadder but wiser man.

Most of the characters in the play are cruel rather then quaint. They are violent and even vicious rather than accepting or forgiving and, as a result, they come across as caricatures much of the time. This doesn’t make them any the less funny but, in other ways, it does take its toll. I think one of the problems of the play is that these are Irish stereotypes right out of John Millington Synge and Sean O’ Casey, but the playwright does not know what to do with them. They come and they go without any connection.

There was some good acting in the cast. The best was Mark Phillips who is rapidly becoming one of the Bay Area’ best actors. He played the hotheaded widower, Babbybobby. He had all the pain and anger of a man who has lost his wife and is now doomed to stay on this lonely island.

Travis Engle played Cripple Billy. He made a compelling Billy with a mangled arm and gimpy leg. Mr Engle is a dancer so he was able to pull off the role. However, I thought Fred Koehler at the Geffen brought the character more sympathy to the role. Maybe, as the play goes on, Mr Engle will be more accustomed to the role.

Edward Sarafian played Johnnypateenmike, the red faced rogue. I like this actor in almost every production he has been associated. However, I thought he over-acted and he was just too loud for the theatre. He did not have to shout so much. As a result, he became a caricature rather then a human being. Max Wright at the Geffin was able to make the character human.

The two aunties, Phoebe Moyer and Elizabeth Benedict, were satisfactory and had some lovely scenes. Sarah Overman played the tough, egg pegging sister of Bartley, a sweet slow witted lad played by Zane Allen. Ms. Overman was just a little too mean, and again, this performance became an over-the-top caricature. In a scene in the second act, the sister breaks eggs over the brother's head, not once, but three times during an argument. It was like a vaudeville turn and it was unnecessary. Once was enough but three times, well, just too much.

I liked the opening scene where Bartley comes into the store to buy some sweeties. It is a beautifully played by Zane, but after that he seems to have lost his accent and he tends to over-act in the second act. It should have been underplayed.

All in all, this is not the best of McDonaugh’s plays. It is more of a vaudeville show, showing the Irish as characters, rather then human beings. It does need great acting to even make it work properly. Theatre Works production just could not compare to the more experienced actors at the Geffin Playhouse.

The production is at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (650-903-6000). It plays through May 7th.

The Theatre Works 2000-01 season opens with Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. It runs from June 21 to July 16th at the Mountain View's Performaing Arts Center.

Cheers,


- Richard Connema



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