Martin McDonagh is a perfect fit for the REP at University of Delaware. For those unfamiliar, the REP is the Resident Ensemble Players, a professional, Actor’s Equity-sanctioned company in Newark, Delaware, hosted by UD. The productions are always visually stunning, supported by a master’s degree program in Technical Direction, meaning that all levels of design are exquisitely executed.
McDonagh is a masterful storyteller, an Irish playwright responsible for such works as the phenomenal THE PILLOWMAN, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (recently produced at Chapel Street), and THE LONESOME WEST. His stories are definitely of his culture, providing a dark comic point of view on life.
The perfect fit comes in with a playwright with such specific demands (accents, multiple vivid locales, physically demanding roles) and a theatre known for its excellence in the craft of theatre. There is a need in the American Theatre right now to always be saying something with a production. There must be a greater political or social message in every production. It is therefore fascinating to see theatre that is focused on the craft – how is theatre made? What constitutes great acting?
That is not to say that this play has nothing to say. The title character’s observation that he is not the only cripple, just the only one who shows it on the outside, is a sharp commentary on humanity. Broadening the scope, even the audience might fall under the condemnation that Cripple Billy makes, as much of the comedy in the play comes from a sense of schadenfreude. What makes this play even more interesting is that Cripple Billy is not even above reproach, using underhanded means to get what he wants, and potentially risking the punishment of God.
Michael Gotch, as Cripple Billy, consistently proves in his performance that he is an embodiment of a master class in acting. His physicality is exactly as demanded, and at every moment he is captivating. Stephen Pelinski’s performance gives good argument that the play should, in fact, be called THE GOSSIP OF INISHMAAN. Kathleen Pirkl-Tague and Elizabeth Heflin are priceless every moment they are onstage, and master a repetitious language beautifully. Carine Montbertrand provides comic relief when none is needed, and, now that I think about it, I feel awful for laughing at her hilarious drinking problem. Yet again, I found Deena Burke to be a fantastic performer cast too young. She is the youngest woman in the company, but in our youth obsessed culture I have difficulty accepting that she is in her early 20s, as she has been cast consistently. That said, her performance is excellent.
Much praise to scenic designer Stefanie Hansen, especially for the stunning opening she provides. I wish as much thought had been put into transitions as in the intitial reveal, as changes broke up the action unnecessarily and made the production actually feel like its 3 hour run time (unlike the spectacular LITTLE FOXES that opened this season). My companion at this performance was a lighting designer, who knowing much more about such things than I was quite impressed with the work. I agreed in theory, though found myself not noticing much of the design (which may be the strongest praise of all).
My only major critique on the production stems from my compliments early in this review – I didn’t know why this play had to be done. What do I gain as an audience member having seen it? Granted, I have this problem with most of McDonagh’s work (excepting PILLOWMAN) and so it is likely not the fault of the REP. However, in reviewing the press release, I do see that director J.R. Sullivan is credited for having ‘staged’ this production, and that may be the issue: staging is an outdated notion of the responsibilities of the director, but might be the role that person fills at a REP production.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN runs through February 12 at REP. Parking runs about $7 at the neighboring parking garage, and there will be a talk back on Feburary 9. I also highly recommend taking advantage of the discount given with your ticket stub at Kildare’s on Main Street – going to an Irish pub was a great way to digest the play.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Through February 12, 2012
Resident Ensemble Players
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716