THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE: A Dark Comedy With a Serious Message

by Ronald Comer

The lengths to which one will take use of violence in asserting one’s passions seems quite adequately addressed in Theatre Exile’s blood-infused production of THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE. This fifth in a series of eight plays as part of this year’s Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival is written by Martin McDonagh. Following its 2001 premier in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company it enjoyed successful runs in New York in 2006, earning an Obie Award for McDonagh. Now through March 13th audiences can enjoy its Philadelphia premier taking place at the Plays and Players Theater.

Paul Felder and Keith Conallen in a scene from Theatre Exile’s THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE, running at Plays and Players Theatre in Philadelphia PA through March 13. (Photo credit: Robert Hakalski)

Just what, exactly, is driving the passions of the characters in this often ironically funny two-act misadventure is open to interpretation. On one level there are expressions of nationalist passions for a “free Ireland”. At other levels one may discern passions for moral convictions. But, alas, the deepest of all passions seem to return again and again to the love of cats. Therein one finds, perhaps, the depth of absurdities ruthlessly strewn about in this clever play. Probably only fervent cat lovers will fail to appreciate the senselessness of revenge-inspired carnage taking place on stage over a pet known for its common tendency to display affection-challenged characteristics.

But there you have it in this dark comedy; a plot centering on pathological grief over a dead cat. However, this is not just any cat. This cat, Wee Thomas, has been the cherished pet since childhood of Padraic, a young militant member of a splinter IRA group. What ensues upon his learning that, while away conducting terrorist activities, his cat is doing “poorly” carries the action for the rest of this excellently produced play filled with technically perfected special effects.

All but one of the play’s characters are associated in one way or another with supposed IRA splinter groups. The one exception is a hapless drug dealer who, unlike others who prefer to justify their acts as motivated by a cause larger than themselves, is clearly engaged in self-serving misdeeds. As James, the drug dealer, Keith Conallen delivers most of his lines hanging upside down by his feet, a feat clearly demonstrating this young actor’s remarkable talent. He was placed in this precarious position by Padriac, the Lieutenant of Inishmore, portrayed with fierce passion by Paul Felder who delivers an outstanding performance pulling forth emotions ranging from crushing grief through maniacal rage.

The remarkably superb ensemble of actors in this show delivers brilliant performances. Pearce Bunting is exceptional as the off-beat father to Padriac who first delivers the bad news regarding the deceased feline. As the defiant, long-haired teenage neighbor accused of running over the cat with his bicycle, Robert DaPonte is terrific; he finds himself the frequently caught-in-the-crosshairs target of others’ rages.

The intensity of the plot thickens with the appearance of Christy (William Zielinski), Brendan (Brian McCann) and Joey (Andrew Kane) who are members of still another IRA splinter group with a plan to lure Padriac into a murderous trap satisfying their urge for revenge. Each member of this trio, while bungling through the execution of their dastardly plan, provides, in all their earnestness, generous helpings of laughter for the audience who, by the time they burst upon the scene, are mostly on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens next.

Capping off the fine performances that enthrall this show’s audiences is a stunning turn by Elena Bossler, who plays Mairead, the splinter group’s teenage groupie whose crush on Padriac is inescapable. In addition to engaging in several feckin’ amorous embraces with Felder as Padriac, Bossler enchants the audience with her disarmingly sweet voice during a couple of well-placed Irish ballads.

Never mind this play’s reputation for some scenes of gruesome gore; THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE is a very entertaining, superbly well-acted and technically awesome show. This dark comedy manages through its absurdist theme to never lose sight of the underlying message you will be left thinking about long after the final curtain.

by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
February 23 – March 13, 2011
Theatre Exile
at Plays & Players Theater
1714 Delancey St
Philadelphia, PA 19103

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