Provoking Eire


Show #42: The Cripple of Inishmaan, Cal Performances, May 6.

Tadhg Murphy in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

By Sam Hurwitt

“Ireland must not be such a bad place, so, if the Yanks want to come here to do their filming.” Pretty much everybody says some variation of this line at one point or another in Martin McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan. It’s a good line that just gets funnier as the play goes on, because Cripple takes the piss out of the popular stereotype of Ireland as a quaint land of friendly country folk with perverse glee. It says something about McDonagh’s notoriously violent ouevre that a tragicomedy with running gags about priestly sexual abuse, suicide and attempted murder is one of his kinder plays.

Set in the Aran Islands off the Irish coast circa 1934, the play takes place around the filming of the quasi-documentary Man of Aran on the nearby larger island of Inishmore. We stay put on Inishmaan and never see the filming, but it captures the imagination of local folk such as Cripple Billy, who spends his days staring at cows, and Slippy Helen, the town beauty who pelts eggs at clergymen who’ve tried to feel her up. An orphan whose parents supposedly drowned themselves rather than live with their disfigured child, Billy hates being called Cripple Billy, and no one understands why. “Isn’t your name Billy and aren’t you a cripple?” says professional gossip JohnnyPateenMike, whose own mother calls him “the most boring oul fecker in Ireland.” In fact, we’re told pretty much what sort of person every character is in case we couldn’t see it for ourselves, but that’s part of the humor of it: The townsfolk don’t have much better to do than spend their days talking about each other.

Cripple has been produced in the Bay Area at least a couple of times before, by TheatreWorks in 2000 and Wilde Irish in 2007. Now it comes to the Cal Performances series at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse courtesy of the Druid theater company from Galway, Ireland, whereabouts most of McDonagh’s plays are set, just a short boat ride from Inishmaan and the rest of the Aran Islands. Cal Performances has brought Druid out to Berkeley twice before, in 2008 with John Millington Synge’s 1909 comedy The Playboy of the Western World (whose influence on McDonagh’s wry, dialect-heavy language is obvious) and in 2009 with Enda Walsh’s perverse contemporary play The Walworth Farce. Druid was an early advocate of McDonagh’s work, premiering The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996, the same year Cripple premiered at London’s Royal National Theatre.

Druid’s staging is superb, directed by founding artistic director Garry Hynes, who became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing in 1998 for the Broadway production of Beauty Queen. It’s marred only by Colin Towns’s new agey score, which seems strangely ill suited to the play until the end, when it’s awfully heavy-handed in driving the drama home.

Production designer Francis O’Connor’s handsome set depicts a large but scantly stocked village store with green walls and a lot of cans of peas. The store is run by Billy’s two self-appointed “aunties,” Ingrid Graigie’s talkative, always-fretting Kate and Dearbhla Molloy’s taciturn but easily annoyed Eileen. Tadhg Murphy has a soft-spoken, crestfallen air as Cripple Billy, who may or may not have serious health problems aside from his disability (he walks on his ankle and drags that foot behind him in a way that’s painful to watch).

They’re often visited by Dermot Crowley’s amusingly abrasive JohnnyPateenMike, an old bore and self-styled “newsman” who earns his groceries in trade for whatever gossip he’s overheard or stories about mutant livestock he read in the newspaper. He always hopes for bad news, the worse the better, because it makes for juicier gossip. An article about Hitler’s rise to power, on the other hand, inspires only the mildest curiosity from JohnnyPateen: “Ah, he seems a nice enough fella, despite
 his funny moustache. Good luck to him.” He’s also doing the best he can to kill his alcoholic, bedridden mother with drink, played by the hilariously deadpan Nancy E. Carroll.

Clare Dunne has a rough charm as Slippy Helen McCormick, the violent local beauty who works for the local egg man, who never has any eggs in stock because Helen keeps chucking them at people. She’s usually accompanied by her thick-headed brother Bartley, who talks about nothing but candy and telescopes. In Laurence Kinlan’s hysterical portrayal, Bartley looks like a young adult, but talks like he’s maybe 10.          Liam Carney’s gruff BabbyBobby Bennett is a rough-hewn but good-hearted boatsman, as long as you don’t get on his bad side, and Paul Vincent O’Connor rounds out the cast as mild-mannered Doctor McSharry.

The play centers on secrets new and old—Billy’s health, what happened to his parents, and what becomes of him when he goes away—but it’s easy to forget all that for long stretches of time as you enjoy the infuriating qualities and casual cruelties of the townsfolk. And this superbly performed and deftly realized production makes all that especially enjoyable. Ireland must not be such a bad place, if shows like this come out of it.

The Cripple of Inishmaan runs through May 14 at Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley.

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