You Guys Always Bring Me the Very Best Violence

There’s a maxim in comedy, which I’m sure has a proper name, but I just call it the 9-rakes rule, based on the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons. Stepping on a rake once is funny, the second time is less funny, the third time starts gettting repetetive and boring, but sometime between the 4th and the 9th time it gets funny again. The same principle applies with violence; too much is often better than the right amount. Quentin Tarantino understands this, as does Robert Rodriguez. And so, it turns out, does Martin McDonagh. We saw his dark comedy, his “comedy of terrors” if you will, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, last night at Signature, and it goes so far overboard on the violence that it made me wonder if I was a bad person for giggling uncontrollably at some of the scenes.

McDonagh also wrote The Cripple of Inishmaan, which we saw at Silver Spring Stage in March. Cripple was very dark, and we had heard it was one of his cheerier plays, so weren’t sure what to expect from Lieutenant. Especially considering it was billed as comedy. But it was in the smaller ARK space at Signature, so at least it wasn’t going to involve the Broadwaysturbation that’s becoming more common in the MAX space (notwithstanding the fact that this play was nominated for five Tonys in 2006). We weren’t disappointed.

More, with some spoilers, below the fold.

The show opens with a dead black cat, with Donny (John Lescault) and Davey (Matthew McGloin) arguing over what to do about it, and did Davey run it over with his bike. Okay, it’s clearly a fake cat, but when Donny turns it over and the top of the head flops open it’s still a bit of a shock. Rake #1.

We soon learn that Wee Thomas wasn’t actually Donny’s cat; he was watching it for his son Padraic (Karl Miller, who totally kicks ass in this show, and who I now wish I had seen as Henry V earlier this year at Washington Shakespeare Company). Padraic is insanely violent, a member of the INLA, and was rejected from the IRA because he was too wild. The story revolves around what Padraic will do when he finds out that Wee Thomas, the only friend he ever had, is dead. Donny phones Padraic to tell him Wee Thomas is poorly, hoping to break the news slowly, over a few weeks.

The second scene opens with James (Jason Stiles) dangling shirtless from the ceiling by his feet, as Padraic pleasantly asks him which nipple he’d prefer to lose, and points out how kind he was to remove two toenails from the same foot, rather than one from each foot. It’s an incredibly long scene to have to do upside down, and Stiles is as wonderful in it as Miller. Rake #2.

Of course Donny’s plan fails, and Padraic rushes home to be with his kitty. Donny and Davey try to find, and failing that, manufacture (from an orange cat and some shoe polish), a new cat to fool Padraic. Padraic arrives, and hilarity ensues. Where by hilarity I mean shooting, torture, death, and gallons of blood. Wikipedia says the Broadway production used six gallons of blood per night. I don’t think it’s quite that much here, but it’ll be close. Also, the better part of a box of blanks, and all the squibs to match. By the end of the night, most of the set has been sprayed with blood, most of the characters are dead, and the political, oops I mean personal differences haven’t been settled a bit by all the violence.

Which is why the over-the-top level of gore is important to the message, not just to the comedy. Although, by the time we got to the ninth rake, it was damn funny. Other than the five old ladies who walked out at various points in the show, the entire audience was in clear agreement that this was funny. Funny-dark, to be sure, but funny.

Another twist is that Davey’s sister, Mairead (Casie Platt, whom I saw in The Sex Habits of American Women and whose photo I recognize in the program, but was that really the same person? Now that’s what I call acting!) is completely in love (or anyway lust) with Padraic, and is determined to have him take her out while he’s back in town.

And then we get to the part I think makes it from just great theatre to literature, which you don’t want to read if you don’t like spoilers (this part I mean, not literature). I’ll put it in white so. Select the text with the mouse to read.

The interesting twist at the end is that all this killing over a cat isn’t enough of a metaphor for the sectarian violence in not-just-Ire-land. Nope, the extra tasty irony is that it was over the wrong cat. After all the killing is done, Wee Thomas shows up, unharmed and fine. The beauty of the production is the use of a live cat for the part. He just kind of crawled out a hole and curled up on a shelf. May have done the same on Broadway, but it’s brilliant. After the cartoony ultra-violence with the bodies, and more than one fake cat, to see a real animal appear as Wee Thomas brings home the reality of life like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist, as Nick Danger would say. Plus, it’s very daring to use a live cat in a live performance, so kudos to the production team.

The production team, by the way, includes three people (set designer Daniel Conway, fight choreographer Dale Anthony Girard, and stage manager Kate Olden) who worked on Teller’s Macbeth at the Folger this spring. Sweet! The set design was bloody spectacular, even before it was bloody. I definitely want to steal the flagstone rock walls made from foam board. Except it’s more foam board than community theatre can afford. Lighting was one of those designs that’s great because it’s unobtrusive. There wasn’t a lot to do with the lights, other than to make it look good and distract us from the final set change behind the scrim, but the use of shadows at appropriate times was just so.

It’s not clear from the program who designed the mechanicals, of which there were an inordinate number. There must have been upwards of 50 pyrotechnic devices onstage, including my favorite, a sugar jar that got hit in a firefight and continued to spill sugar into the sink below for the next two minutes. I suppose that counts as set design here, in which case working with Teller was probably a great help in getting this to work. Aside from one late action of something falling from a shelf, all the squibs were timed perfectly to the gunshots, and looked very like bullets hitting. There was one shot where INLA member Christy (Tim Getman) was shot while reaching into his belt for another clip, and it was pretty obvious that he was actually pressing the trigger for his squib(s). But overall it was damn impressive for a live performance.

I’m not sure who I pity more; the actors who were covered head to toe in blood and shoe polish, or the stage crew who had to clean off floors and walls and chairs and tables and signs and pots and pans and costumes. Okay strike that, I do know who I pity more. Sorry, actors. At least you get your names out there.

So, short version: Play great. Actors amazing. Set and lighting fantastic. Special effects spectacular. Story funny yet meaningful. And you’re out before 10PM. They keep producing things like this and I’ll keep subscribing. Though maybe just to the ARK shows. I’ll ignore the big budget extravaganzas in the MAX and check out the edge in the ARK.

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