Irish theatre and Irish music sometimes make me wonder if the Irish people have taken liberty with the English language in requital of the liberty that the English people took from them. What better way to give the finger to the country that took away your country’s freedom — and its language — than to free their language from the usages they force upon it? Dance and gambol doesn’t it without the fecking usage now.
Those thoughts came to me while I was waiting for Maryland Ensemble Theater’s production of Martin McDonagh’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore to start. If you come early, you can listen to beautiful Irish music while gazing into the ugliest kitchen/living-room you’ve ever seen, where most of the action occurs — dismal in a way that would degrade your soul. Or make you sing.
The play shows how the vicious lieutenant reacts when he learns that his cat, Wee Thomas, whom he left in the care of his father when he headed north to bomb and torture, has died unpeacefully, run over by a car or a bike, or bashed with something: he’s angry, and anger tends to push him past the limits of acceptable behavior.
Will he make his father and his neighbor pay for the death of Wee Thomas as brutally as they expect? Will Mairead, the neighbor’s sister, convince him to make her his rebel mistress? And what really happened to Wee Thomas anyway? Those are the questions that drive the plot, but the play gets most of its power by eliminating the boundary between the comforts of domestic familiarity, even if it’s dingy, and the terror of brutality so ghastly that it seems inhuman.
Jeff Keilholtz, who plays Padraic, combines the domestic and the ghastly especially well by treating them both with the same steely demeanor. He gets the news about Wee Thomas during a scene that exemplifies the strength of this production, which is using simple elements expertly, to spectacular effect. In this scene the elements are a pulley on the ceiling, a grommet on the wall, a metal bar bent in the shape of two J’s that meet at the top, and a rope, which is tied to the bar and threaded through the pulley. The hooks at the bottom of the Js go through loops in special leather cuffs strapped to the ankles of James, whose feet are bare because Padraic has been pulling off his toenails while he hangs upside down.
When the lights go up on the scene, Padraic is lying on a tarp directly under James, who is writhing. The two of them are close enough to kiss. It’s not clear why Padraic is lying under James, or why he’s wearing a particle mask, but director Tad Janes’s decision to open the scene with Padraic in that position instantly evokes a terrifying kind of intimacy, which increases as the scene continues. At one point, Padraic practically cuddles his suspended victim, shouldering his naked torso while he chats about what’s next on the agenda.
When Padriac gets the call about Wee Thomas and comes down stage to take it privately, his body makes suggestions that go beyond the semi-comic premise of the play. Keilholtz is sculpted. His arms and chest and shoulders have the shape and size that come only from working hard to make yourself a certain shape and size. His waist is flat and narrow, and his torso flares upward in the V of cartoon strongmen. By contrast, Colin Boteler, who plays James, looks pudgy — just a little, and he’s hanging upside down the whole time, like eight or ten minutes, with his shirt off, so his flesh is all out of place, but the difference between the two bodies is unmistakable: one is soft, and the other is firm.
Padraic’s body is always on display because it tells us why he’s angry: he has the strength of will to shape things according to his vision, including his body, but he lives in a dismal world that he can barely influence at all, except by doing things like hanging people upside down and pulling off their toenails.
Softer people, it appears, resign themselves to being fecked, a term from the Irish vernacular which may remind Padraic, of the English term ‘feckless’: he tells James not to say it while he’s being tortured, “Or you’ll make me want to give you some serious bother, and not just be tinkering with you.”
“Is toenails off just tinkering with me, so?” James inquires.
“It is,” says Padraic. “…The way you talk it sounds as if I took off a rake of them, when it was only two I took off, and them only small ones. If they’d been big ones I could understand, but they weren’t. They were small. You’d hardly notice them gone. And if it was so concerned you were about the health of them toenails it would’ve been once in a while you cleaned out the muck from under them.”
“Well, you’ve saved me that job for good now anyways.”
I realize that my reaction to that kind of language is an American reaction, not an English one, and surely not an Irish one. Would an audience in Dublin hear the lilt created by the syntax and the vowels in those lines, or would it go in one ear and come out the other, since they hear it all the time? Do they take pleasure in the way their language sounds? Do they make their language sound that way to give each other pleasure? Judging by the names of the actors, is seems that none of them is a native Irish-English speaker, but all of them immerse themselves in the dialect so thoroughly that is must change how they think about the world.
THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE
Closes May 4, 2014
Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET)
31 W Patrick St
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
A few of the characters sing pieces of a song called “The Patriot Game” from time to time, in voices that make you wonder if vibrato is parceled out equally to Irish children at birth. Caitlyn Joy, who plays Mairead, has a particularly lovely voice — plaintive, keening. When she sings that song, you sense that she knows the ideals it expresses will come to nothing in the end, and that she’ll pursue them anyway.
She may wind up going from one nothing to another, but she’ll take that language with her, and that voice. They won’t compensate completely for the ugly rooms she has to live in, or for the death of her cat, but if making sounds that give another person pleasure is a way to soothe your soul, she will never be entirely bereft.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Tad Jane s. Featuring Colin Boteler, Jack Evans, Bob Herbertson, Thom Huenger, Joe Jalette, Caitlyn Joy, Jeff Keilholtz, and Matt Lee. Set design: Eric Berninghausen. Properties: Devin Gaither . Costumes: Julie Herber . Sound: Tom Majarov . Lighting: Doug Grove and Tad Janes . Special Effects: Jon Paul Duvall, Katie Rattigan, Brian Artusio and Doug Grove. Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.