According to the Washington Post’s Jane Horwitz, when 1st Stage Artistic Director Mark Krikstan heard that his company had won the Helen Hayes John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, he hung up and said “… Oh no. Now I’ve got to make sure this show is good.”
He needn’t have worried. The show is good.
By the Bog of Cats is, by a significant margin, the clearest and most accessible of the quartet of Marina Carr plays we’ve seen in Washington (the others are The Mai, Portia Coughlin and Woman and Scarecrow, all produced by Solas Nua). Of course, part of the credit goes to Euripides, whose Medea provided the broad outline for this work. Much more of the credit goes to Carr herself, who, while not abandoning the outlandishness which characterizes some of her other work, is here meticulous in establishing cause and motivation, thus deriving pathos and surprising humor from outrageous acts. And much of the credit must go to 1st Stage’s slam-bang production, which brings us into Carr’s nightmarish universe at the speed of thought, and keeps us there relentlessly for two and a half hours.
You know the story of Medea, the sorceress who made common cause with faithless Jason against her own father, helping him steal the Golden Fleece and then slowing her father’s nautical pursuit of them from Colchi and Iolkos by killing her brother and dropping him, piece by piece, into the sea. She knew her father would stop his chase long enough to pick up the bits of his son’s body. Jason marries her, but then abandons her to marry a princess. Medea’s tsunami of vengeance ends with the murder of her own children.
It is much the same here, except that instead of Iolkos , we are in Ireland’s Bog of Cats; instead of mighty, flighty Jason, we have Carthage Kilbride (Ryan Tumulty), a dim and weak-willed farmer; and instead of the sorceress Medea we have the earthbound Hester Swane (Kelley Slagle), imprisoned by her gender, her background (she is descended from the tinkers – the Irish gypsies), and her own unfathomable impulses. When she was twenty-six or so, she took the sixteen-year-old Carthage away from his carnivorous mother (the fabulous Carol Randolph) and, as we say, made him a man. To a sixteen-year-old boy, a woman in her mid-twenties is the goddess of light, but now it is fourteen years later; he is thirty and she is forty, and despite the child they share (Sydney Maloney) the thrill is gone. As Carthage and Heather never formalized their relationship, it is not much of an ordeal for him to dismiss her and marry the broken-spirited daughter (Emily Hemmingson) of the local land baron (Mark O’Brien). And so he does. And after that, the bad things happen.
Make no mistake: this is a thoroughly modern play, and the motivations of the characters are as clear as a snow-fed brook to a modern audience. But the sense of doom, sorrow, inevitability, and chill are as powerful here as they are in any of the ancient Greek plays; portent piles on portent (beginning with an outrageously funny scene involving a “Ghost Fancier” played by Zachary Fernebok) and by the time the characters begin their trek to Hell at the top of the second Act, we know how it will end. Our anticipation, however, in no way diminishes our horror and pleasure in watching it. By the Bog of Cats has its share of bizarre characters – including the plate-slurping mouse-devouring Catwoman (Wendy Wilmer) and a dipsomaniacal priest (Jan Forbes) – but here Carr uses them principally for comic purposes, and does not oblige us to take their wild utterances for wisdom.
1st Stage’s mission is to give newly-minted professional actors stage experience, and both Slagle and Tumulty are relatively new to the professional theater (although Slagle has done film and television). Both are superb: at every moment clear, decisive and fully the characters Carr created for them. Hester is a powerful combination of love and rage, constantly at war with herself and with an incomprehensible world. Slagle nails all of these contradictory feelings, and makes Hester – who has done some horrible things, and will do more before our eyes – nonetheless loveable. Tumulty, playing the less complicated Kilbridge, brings a sly humor to his role, and reminds us that tragedy, too, has its comic side.
This enormous cast features several other actors who are new to the profession. Scott Anderson, a high school student who does a brief bit as a waiter, demonstrates excellent comic timing in a dialogue with Wilmer’s Catwoman. Keith Boylan, another high school student, plays the ghost of Hester’s murdered brother; later, when Hester describes him, we see that he is exactly as Boylan represented him to be. Fernebok , as the ghost fancier, frames the story very well; his otherworldly character seems as matter-of-fact as a postman in Carr’s universe. Hemmingson, who is making the step up from community theater, sells the hopeless bride beautifully, and when she confesses to Heather “There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there?” it breaks your heart.
One of the veteran actors in this cast is Sydney Maloney, who plays Hester’s seven-year-old daughter. This young lady has a bundle of talent, and if she stays with it instead of becoming a lawyer or something, she will be picking up Helen Hayes awards for herself around 2020, if not earlier.
When so many inexperienced actors perform this well, we need to credit the director. Krikstan has performed a service both for his actors and for his audience.
The technical support is unobtrusive, as appropriate for so vivid a story. There is a fire at the top of the second Act, which gradually diminishes and reveals a sky full of stars. Ian Campbell does the lights and Brad Porter does the sound. Thanks, guys.
By the Bog of Cats
By Marina Carr
Directed by Mark Krikstan
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
By the Bog of Cats closes Feb 28, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
BY THE BOG OF CATS
Nelson Pressley . The Post