Quick quiz: who would you most like to give you their cat for safekeeping after first making you pledge your life to its well-being: (a) Tony Soprano (b) Satan or (c) the Irish rebel Padraic (Thomas Keegan), titular character in Martin McDonagh’s play now being staged at Constellation?
I’m going with (b) Satan, since I’ve seen Padraic, interrupted during a dialogue about drug selling just before he slices a nipple off of poor James (Matthew Ward), fly into a real rage when he hears that his beloved Wee Thomas is off his feed. Off his feed? Padraic cuts down the now-forgotten James, who had been hanging upside-down from a chain around his feet, and heads back to Inishmore, where he can set things right for his beloved cat.
Except he can’t set things right, of course, because Wee Thomas is not “off his feed” but deader than Kelsey’s legumes, with a large hole where his head used to be.
And Padraic’s “da” Donny (Mark Lee Adams), a bewhiskered drunk who has taken care of Wee Thomas by allowing him to wander the countryside, as well as Davey (Chris Dinolfo), a local moron with a bicycle who had the bad judgment to bring Thomas’ body into Donny’s house, will bear the brunt of Padraic’s fury when he manages to put the facts together.
If you are a fan of the good old ultra-violence – and, let’s face it, who isn’t? – Constellation’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore is the show for you. Padraic was rejected by the IRA because he was too violent, and so he joined something called the INLA. But he is too violent for that group, too, and so he is forming his own splinter group, dedicated to the proposition that the ground should be slippery with blood. He gets to exercise this dedication in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. A lot.
If I haven’t made it clear to this point: The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a comedy. And also a romance, in that Mairead (Megan Dominy), Davey’s sixteen-year-old sister, has her heart swell at the thought of Padraic. Mairead, who like Padraic is a lover of animals, is well known in town for having sharp-shot the eyes out of cows, so as to render them less marketable and thus less likely to be slaughtered, and also….
Oh, dear. I’m not making this easier, am I? Let me be serious for a moment, and then we’ll go back to the good times. Mark Twain observed that all humor comes from pain, and he was right. There is a scene in which Donny and Davey get drunk waiting for Padraic to come home, and it’s funny; but in Padraic – and his INLA colleagues Christy (Daniel Flint), Brendan (Joseph Carlson) and Joey (Chris Stinson) – we see men who are drunk on bloodshed. Padraig joined the INLA to kill for the freedom of all Ireland, but now he is willing to kill to avenge his kitty. Men move from killing for a cause, to killing for anything, to killing for nothing at all.
In the face of such tragedy McDonagh has concluded that the only sane response is to laugh, and he makes it easy for us to join him. We have a weakness for stories about dangerous men with a vulnerable side – “Faithful”, “Analyze This”, “The Sopranos” – and The Troubles have been a rich source of humor for us as well (Mojo/Mickybo, Midsummer Night’s Riot). In those stories, comedy ends with tragedy, but for McDonagh, the comedy is the tragedy. The final scene is so awash with blood you could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into a production by the Molotov Theatre Group. That scene is punctuated by an outrageous final joke which is, in the words of Donny (or, in truth, any of the characters) “feckin’ hilarious.”
The script gives Thomas Keegan something hard to do: play a man willing to shoot his own father for not taking better care of his cat, but who is otherwise quite pleasant. Keegan pulls it off; his formidable size and obvious fitness is an asset, but what seals the deal is the way his face lights up like a lunatic’s when it has to, and settles into calmness otherwise. His scene with Ward (who must deliver most of his lines upside-down, and does so) at the top of the play establishes his character; he is sweetly reasonable as he pulls James’ toenails out (explaining the favor he’s done him by taking two from one foot rather than one from each), but the anger is upon him when he takes the straight-edge razor to James’ chest, and then deflates again as his cell phone rings. It is a portrait of a man at peace in two worlds, as comfortable shooting a man between the eyes as he is planning a home visit.
Director Matthew R. Wilson gets strong performances throughout; I was particularly impressed with Dominy, who gives the gamine Mairead the same qualities Padraic might have had, had he been twenty years younger, and female. She is wistful, and sweet, and loves her cat, Sir Roger, and likes to shoot her brother with her bb-gun. The task is to meld all these characteristics into a coherent whole. Dominy does the job.
The remaining actors have less complicated tasks, which they perform with dispatch and without fuss. Notable among them: Adams as Padraic’s hard-drinking, cynical father, a man who hates and fears his son but otherwise barely has energy to walk across the room. Watching Adams as Donny gives us a clue about what made Padraic who he is. Dinolfo is also boffo as the (deservedly) highly-strung Davey.
THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE
Closes March 8
1835 14th Street, NW
1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $20 – $45
Thursdays thru Sundays
If you enjoy the work in this play, you should pause a moment to give thanks to Synetic, which has generated a cadre of very agile actors. Dinolfo, Ward, and Carlson are all Synetic alumni, and they show their education to advantage. Dinolfo is wonderful as Padraic bats him around the room. (In stage combat, as in staged wrestling, the beatee has a more difficult task than the beater). Wilson and Casey Kaleba, who shared responsibility for fight choreography, both know their stuff, but it must have been easier directing Synetic graduates.
Wilson, the Artistic Director of the commedia dell’arte troupe Faction of Fools, is proficient in farce and although Lieutenant of Inishmore is not that this production has the same quick pace and bang-on timing that makes farce work. We are shocked and amused in equal measure, the shock turning into amusement, and then again into shock. Wilson is aided with an able cadre of technical specialists, including Neil McFadden’s excellent sound design and A.J. Guban’s convincingly shabby set.
Finally, a tip of the hat to cat wrangler Sarah Kate Patterson. There are two live cats in the production, and cats are more difficult to herd than the Republican caucus. These cats, neither of whom are Equity, were aces.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Matthew R. Wilson (who also served as co-fight director) . Featuring Mark Lee Adams, Chris Dinolfo, Thomas Keegan, Megan Dominy, Matthew Ward, Daniel Flint, Joseph Carlson and Chris Stinson . Scenic and lighting design: A.J. Guban . costume design by Kendra Rai . sound design by Neil McFadden . blood and effects design by Casey Kaleba (who also served as co-fight director) . props design by Sarah Conte. Dialect coach: Gary Logan . Stage manager: Cheryl Ann Gnerlich . Cat wrangler, and assistant stage manager: Sarah Kate Patterson . Produced by Constellation Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.