Martin McDonagh would have no problem with Woody Allen's famous statement that life consists of two things: "the miserable" and "the horrible." Mcdonagh's plays stare unflinchingly at psychopathy, torture, and senseless cruelty. So there's more than a bit of sadism in The World's Stage Theater's festival of three McDonagh works in one week. ("Festival" seems a funny choice of words here; "carnival sideshow" might be more appropriate.) If a Tarantino marathon is your idea of a fun time, or you can chomp happily away at your popcorn during the Saw movies, you'll find this series an exciting walk on the dark side. On the other hand, if you cover your eyes during parts of those films (you know which ones), seeing all three plays in a row might result in you ending up curled into a fetal ball with Belle and Sebastian playing on loop.
Not that they're that graphic— a gallon of stage blood is probably sufficient for the run of all three shows. And it's understandable why a McDonagh marathon would appeal to the young company: though several times Tony nominated, his foul language and violent subject matter are likely to exclude him from the repertoire of our fair city's more conservative venues anytime soon. And the plays are absurdly funny, with characters as eccentric (if not as harmless) as Monty Python's chap who will only take the bag off his head if everyone stands in the tea chest and sings."And did those feet in ancient times." Plus, besides his brilliant language and structure, McDonagh fully embraces the artist's creed of looking at all of life, even the nasty bits. Especially the nasty bits. Full of snappy lines and complex characters, the plays are an actors' dream; they just take a certain amount of steel in the stomach to watch.
The three shows, with different directors and in different venues, all benefit from the work of a talented production team; the costumes, sound and sets are evocative and polished. The Lieutenant of Innishmore, staged as a costumed reading, had the most seasoned actors and director, skilled at bringing out the subtleties in the story of a band of dim-witted militia men, with accompanying torture, brutality, and promiscuous gun play.
The more farcical A Behanding in Spokane, is about another angry man with a gun, who, having lost his left hand in a grisly assault in his childhood, embarks on a deranged decades-long search for severed human hands, leading to gruesome hi jinks in a hotel room with two incompetent grifters and an extremely dicey desk clerk. First-time Robby McGhee and second-time director Mara McGhee set the play at an appropriately sitcom pace—if a bit hammy and over-shouty. When he's not overacting, first-timer Aaron Phifer displays a natural gift for comedy as the small-time drug dealer looking for an easy $500, while as the wildly amoral clerk, Martin McMahon Bergquist brings musical theater chops to an anything-but-musical theater role—and somehow makes it work. People are handcuffed, the N-word is liberally tossed around, as are extremely unrealistic-looking severed human hands. The overall effect is like Pulp Fiction as staged by a talented community theater group; the hysterically laughing audience can't believe what they're seeing.
If these two plays sound sick, they're summer romps compared to The Pillowman, a grueling two-and-a-half hour journey into torture and child abuse. A writer named Katurian Katurian, played by David Bohn, is interrogated by two secret policemen, played by David Franz and Audwin Short, investigating a series of crimes that horribly re-enact Katurian's unpublished short stories that all feature children being murdered in a variety of ingenious and grotesque ways. "The Pillowman" (the title of one of the stories) is a sandman-like figure who goes back to the childhoods of people who commit suicide and persuades them it would be better to kill themselves as children, thus sparing themselves their miserable existences. As it turn out, Katurian and his mentally-disabled brother were raised by parents whose twisted scheme to mold Katurian into a great writer involved years of deceit and child abuse. It all seems as improbable as horrible; reportedly McDonaugh was inspired by the grisly quality of Grimm fairy tales to attempt fables of his own, but it's hard not to imagine that he's working through some family issues himself.
The production cleverly uses the mirrored back wall of a dance studio to create a glisteningly chilly setting for the interrogation room, while letting us see ourselves literally reflected in the background of every scene. The apprentice-level actors do their best with the extremely challenging script; though a sympathetic figure, Bohn doesn't show us the depths of Katurian's emotional damage until the last scene of the show, when the interchange between him and Franz takes on the electric charge (no torture pun intended) that one could imagine in the 2003 London production with David Tennant and Jim Broadbent in the roles. Video clips representing Katurian's stories seem thrown together at the last minute, and the performance was marred by technical problems. But the show has enough power to sicken the heart and move the audience to pity. It's as if the playwright is trying to see just how hard he has to hit to move the toughest possible audience. At the same time, the show has much to say about family, the role of the artist, the nature of morality, the state, and of course, cruelty. And by suggesting that Katurian's stories may have inspired the horrendous crimes, McDonagh points to today's question of whether violence in entertainment inspires actual violence.
Dramatists from Aristotle to Artaud have recommended that theater be shocking, to jolt us out of our complacency and wake us up to the greater universe; English Jacobean plays commonly rolled out elaborate tableaus of bloody carnage. If, as Shakespeare said, theater is the abstract chronicle of our time, we live in dark times indeed—it takes no more than a glance at the news to see that. Though perhaps more than a bit of a sadist, and motivated by postmodern European miserablism, McDonagh is clearly fascinated by the darkest recess of human nature. And what does he find there? Humanity. He never demonizes his torturers, murderers, and lost souls; his scrutiny reveals that there are no evil people, just people whose good has been somehow twisted by suffering. Everyone has a soft spot—if only for a beloved cat. Even the brute cops of The Pillowman have their tiny moments of redemption, and these moments come like sparks in the deepest darkness, shocking us even more because they come when we least expected them.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore (a stylized stage reading)
January 31, 7:30
Tenth Street Theatre
tickets $12, $10 students
A Behanding in Spokane
Feb. 1. 7:30, Feb. 3. 6:30
The Milwaukee Fortress
100 A E. Pleasant St.
$15, $12 students
Feb. 2, 7:30
The Underground Collaborative
(in the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall)
$15, $12 students