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Three patrons, three perspectives: The Cripple of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan opened at the Power Center last night to rave reviews in the press and in the audience. Here, three distinct voices — a theater critic, a drama professor, and a student — give three distinct perspectives on the play. Read on for what they have to say and tell us: what did you think?

SALLY MITANI, THEATER CRITIC: To tell you the truth, I was all set to write something else.  When you know you’re going to go ablogging at 11 p.m., it helps to have thought of a few possible directions ahead of time. But The Cripple of Inishmaan just surprised me with its straightforward simplicity and sweetness, so I tore up the notes. I’d never seen any of Martin McDonagh’s plays before but I’d read a bit about him and thought I’d caught his drift—edgy, ironic, the kind of guy that is a little scared to be caught looking like a sap.  Scan his wiki and you’ll see: dark comedy, blah blah, black comedy, blah blah, ironic, black, dark, blah blah, works with Tom Waits and Christopher Walken.  Check. Not that I have anything against this strain of art, but Cripple isn’t it. (Note to self: never use the phrase “dark comedy” again.  Its currency has apparently been weakened to include anything that is sad and funny at the same time.  At this rate we’ll be calling all of Chekhov a black comedy.)

So forget “dark comedy,” whatever that means.  It’s a sweetly brutal play about a small bunch of goofballs and gossips on a desolate, windswept western Ireland outpost in the 1930s. It strikes me as fairly representational of real life.  I’d say “except that everyone’s much wittier than in real life,” but I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Ireland, and people there simply are wittier than in real life.  We’re probably better at spatial relations or math or something, but, really, the Irish have some verbal skills that are uncanny.  The Druid Theatre is marvelous, of course.  Seeing them do this play is like seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company do Shakespeare or Comédie Française do Molière.  They’re a Galway theatre company; the play is set in the Aran Islands, right out their back door.  Druid’s the benchmark for how it ought to be done, so let’s not even waste any time talking about the quality of the production.  (Except to say that it can be a bit of a strain to listen to all that dialect for two and a half hours.  I had to take a breather once in awhile and, in fact, missed a few short chunks of the plot. I haven’t a clue why BabbyBobby beat up Billy—I was wandering around in my own brain for a minute, marveling at how much easier my version of English is to understand than the Druid Theatre’s, and suddenly poor Billy’s getting the tar beat out of him.  You might have your moment like this too.)

It does also help to know about Man of Aran, even more so to have seen Man of Aran, which Martin Walsh (my fellow blogger here) was so wonderful to show this week at the Residential College.  It’s a real-life early documentary made in the Aran Islands, around which the plot of Cripple revolves. And yet, it ultimately isn’t that important to the plot.  I was going to rattle on about the complex relationship people in remote and beautiful places have with the people who anthropologize them, which I had surmised would be the theme here.  That’s rich terrain, but it’s terrain that McDonagh more or less leaves alone, and instead he tells a sturdier, crueler story about a crippled boy.  With jokes.

Sally Mitani is the theatre critic for the Ann Arbor Observer.

SARA BISCHELL, U-M STUDENT: In the world of Martin McDonagh, if one were to row up to the rocky shores of the Isle of Inishmaan, the first thing to greet the eye would be a giant, weather worn sign proclaiming “Welcome to Inishmaan: Where Honesty is the Best Policy.”  It is that honesty, so brutal, and so endearing, that makes Martin McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan such a beautiful piece of theater. Every character, from Billy the cripple’s elderly aunties to the pompous town gossip Johnnypateenmike (deficiency of space bar intended), at some point displays an incredible level of honesty. These characters say things that in our wildest dreams we wish we could say to our enemies, to our friends, and to that one person in town who just can’t seem to stop talking, and because we have all been close to that temptation, perhaps even succumbed to it, the laughter is inevitable as are the tears. McDonagh sends you on an undulating journey between these extremes.

McDonagh also helps to humanize the characters by combining the brazen honesty with dialogue that becomes frequently repeated throughout the play. There are countless lines revolving around the same jokes, but somehow the delivery does not grow old. Rather, the repetition adds an element of comfort. During some of these awkward, often-cruel repartees between the characters, they toss in a joke that we have heard at least three times before, but it’s soothing in a way. The countless repetitions of references to Bartley’s fascination with telescopes, for example, eases the tension in the scene as Helen gives an unflinching description of how Billy’s parents died. The moment of humor injects the scene with hope and laughter, and in my mind I compared it to any one of the moments in my life where situations have gotten sticky and small blurbs of humor have broken down the barriers. Where theatrical comedy was concerned, the cast members had incredible timing, naturalistic but hilarious facial expressions, and the ability to transcend the boundaries that come between an Irish brogue and an American audience.  They were phenomenal. The show was gut wrenching yet poignant.

And that is my honest opinion.

Sarah Bichsel is a sophomore at the University of Michigan majoring in English and Communications. She loves theater, music, baked goods, and well-made films.

MARTIN WALSH, U-M DRAMA PROFESSOR: I would rate The Cripple of Inishmann along with The Beauty Queen of Leenane as the best work of Martin McDonagh.  Beauty Queen is the darker, more tragic of the two, but both share the playwright’s characteristic black comedy, intricate plotting, and rich ensemble of eccentric characters.

Having taught a minicourse this semester on the plays and films of McDonagh, I have combed through most of the collected criticism on the playwright.  Much of this is very positive, even enthusiastic, but there is a strong countercurrent which finds McDonagh’s work rather meretricious.  These critics tend to see McDonagh as derivative, shallow, and manipulative, trading in cruel stereotypes of Irish rural people for the “hip,” well-heeled audiences of London or New York.  (And, some of these critics assert, McDonagh isn’t even an Irish playwright in the first place.)  Mc Donagh is faulted particularly for a lack of empathy for his creations who are reduced to grotesque puppets jerked about by a cynical and amoral puppet master.  Some of McDonagh can feel like this.  The Lieutenant of Inishmore, for example, seems constantly to want to top itself in transgressive humor and graphic violence in the manner of McDonagh’s master, Quentin Tarantino (ex. Inglourious Basterds).

This negative characterization of McDonagh is belied however by a play like The Cripple of Inishmaan which, in the capable and loving hands of Garry Hynes and the Druid Theatre Company comes across as both a finely crafted and a deeply felt piece of theatre.  Our title character Cripple Billy is a truly complex figure superbly rendered by Tadgh Murphy.  The victim of just about everyone’s casual verbal cruelty, Billy has his own mean streak.  He’s as self-centered, manipulative, and callous as the rest of them.  But his longing for escape, for some crumbs of affection; his quirky courage and persistence in facing his “host of troubles” win us in the end.  Indeed all the characters, from the termagant Slippy Helen (a terrific Clare Dunne, sexy and repellant by turns) to the taciturn Babby Bobby (Liam Carney) have secret reserves of compassion which are occasionally allowed to seep up through the heavily crusted layers of boredom, frustration, and random cruelty that characterize this economically depressed community.  Even the meddling, self-important newsmonger Johnny Pateen (Dermot Crowley) turns out to be something of a hero in the end.  His supposed attempt, over several decades now, to kill his old mammy with strong drink actually seems more like its opposite – feeding her booze against doctor’s orders is probably preserving the batty ol’ thing for a second century.  Add Billy’s “pretend aunties” Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy), a delightful study in parental affection and early senility, with the inspired clowning of Laurence Kinlan as the perpetual adolescent Bartley, and we have a comic assemblage of characters as rich as anything in classic Irish or indeed world drama.  The late “love scene” between Billy and Helen is as poignant and bitter-sweet as anything in Chekhov.

This fine Druid rendition of The Cripple of Inishmaan in what we might now call the “second generation” of McDonagh productions has convinced me that Martin McDonagh is not just the theatrical enfant terrible of the 90s but a playwright of lasting merit – and still funny as hell.

Martin Walsh is an Adjunct Professor, Department of Theater and Drama and Lecturer IV/Head of Drama Concentration, U-M Residential College.