Well, maybe not that glum, and for that we can thank Martin McDonagh, writer of the highly acclaimed Leenane trilogy, of which the second installment, A Skull in Connemara, had its American premier last week at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. Martin McDonagh has only been writing plays for five years, but already his plays have been produced in some 38 different countries and 28 languages. His first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, won the 1996 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Newcomer, and it was nominated for (and in this reviewer's opinion cheated of) a Tony award for Best New Drama in 1998.
All three plays of the Leanne Trilogy are set in a small village in Connemara, a region of Ireland. McDonagh's Ireland is not the stereotypical Ireland populated by brooding drunks who ruminate on life and ultimately go nowhere. Oh no. His people are viewed more through the lens of Quentin Tarantino than through the bottom of a pint of Guinness (although alcohol does play a large part in his dramas). His Ireland is populated by evil mothers, bored daughters, warring brothers, irreverent grave diggers, oddball guards, and belligerent neighbors, all of whom are living in a world of rumors, gossip, grudges, spite, jealousy and murder. While not the first writer to play up the darker side of Ireland (Synge covered similar ground in 1907), he certainly is one of the freshest dramatic voices around today.
McDonagh's great strength is that he combines traditional story-telling with the savage post-modern ironic humor of today's cinema-raised generation. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a dysfunctional mother/daughter team are locked together in a war of simmering hatred. In A Skull in Connemara, a gravedigger, whose job it is to dig up the bones of seven-year-old corpses and smash them to bits, is rumored to have killed his wife. And in The Lonesome West, two brothers, one of whom has killed their father, wage a battle that rivals Cain and Abel. McDonagh's vision is not wholly original; indeed, he delights in asking you to recognize his sources. In A Skull of Connemara, for instance, the gravedigger's mutinous assistant is disappointed to learn he may not be working for 'a fella up and slaughtered his wife' after all, and later returns from a seemingly mortal battering; a situation which is pure Playboy Of The Western World. But that is part of the fun of McDonagh's shows, and serves as a dramatic scavenger hunt of sorts.
To tell any more of the plot of A Skull would be giving away too much. Most of the joy in McDonagh's plays comes from the many twists, which are by turns hilarious and gut wrenching. But rest assured; this is one roller coaster of a dramatic ride. While not as strong as either Beauty Queen or The Lonesome West, A Skull in Connemara nonetheless provides its fair share of thrills, shocked laughter, and outrageous characters.
The direction, by Gordon Edelstein, was (pardon the pun), dead on and moved things along with gathering momentum. The set design by David Gallo was brilliant, consisting of rotating graves suspended above the players, giving us all a claustrophobic feeling of living with death. Martin Hayes' music and fiddle playing provided perfect accompaniment for the mayhem.
ACT has scored a major coup by producing the first American staging of A Skull in Connemara, and they are to be congratulated not only for pulling it off, but also for pulling it off so well.
A Skull in Connemara runs at A Contemporary Theatrein Seattle through August 20th. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 292-7676 or visit their website: www.acttheatre.org.