Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When Irish Eyes are Missing

Thanks to my super-cool brother, I scored a ticket to the first night of previews for The Lieutenant of Inishmore, opening at the Berkeley Rep.  I hadn't seen anything else by Martin McDonagh, but Pat assured me that his movie ("In Bruges") and his other plays were all excellent.  Pat knows the theater and knows my tastes, and so with only the vaguest idea of what the play was about (a black comedy of terrorism and torture), I gladly took a chance.

Work went a bit late on Friday, but I still managed to hop BART and get there in plenty of time.  The only downside to the gift certificate was that I needed to redeem it in person, but since the show hadn't sold out, this actually worked out quite well.  I grabbed the ticket, then wandered over to University Avenue.  I LOVE killing time in downtown Berkeley.  I ended up at a place that I had previously scouted on Yelp called the Brazil Fresh Squeeze Cafe.  It's an outdoor sandwich shop, and this was the perfect evening for it, positively balmy.  The owner stands outside the stand, greeting all of his customers and handing out free samples and coupons.  I was compelled to try the signature dish, a tri-tip sandwich.  I didn't even know what tri-tip was before moving to California, and now I can't get enough of it.  I sat down at a small plastic table and waited.  It took longer than I expected, which is actually a good thing - even at a casual place like this, it was clear that they were preparing sandwiches as orders came in, not shoveling out fast food glop.  I swiftly devoured the sandwich and my mango smoothie, smiling constantly, before wiping my mouth and walking back towards the Rep.

Besides the first night of previews, this was also their "Under 30" night.  The Rep does a lot to encourage students and other youngsters to attend - any ticket at any show is 50% off to anyone under 30 years old.  This particular night also featured a special reception for us youngsters.  Before the show, this was 2$ cocktails in a nice courtyard.  I contemplated the possibility before deciding to grab my seat instead.

I was in row FF, seat 1 - up in the nosebleeds, but with a surprisingly good view of the action without any obstructions.  From the moment the director started speaking, it was clear that people were here to have a good time - it seemed like several people had taken repeated advantage of the $2 cocktails.  Which is all to the good - I enjoy an experience more when the audience is into it.  Without much more ado, the play proper started.


The play starts in an Irish hovel with two people staring at a dead cat lying on a table.  People started laughing.  An elderly man lifts up the cat.  The cat's brains fall out and splat on the table.  More laughter.  "Is it dead?" the other person asks.

The first scene establishes the action: Davey has found the cat on the road, dead.  Donny is convinced that Davey killed it.  Both of them are terrified because the cat belongs to Padraic, Donny's homicidal son who has joined the INLA, a super-violent offshoot of the IRA.  The cat, Wee Thomas, is the only thing in the world Padraic loves, his constant companion for 15 years.  Their days are numbered.  In desperation, Davey decides to go looking for another cat that they can pass off as the deceased.

The second scene opens.  We see a man hanging upside down from the ceiling.  He is covered in blood and screaming.  Padraic stands beside him, alternately grabbing pliers, scalpels, shears, and other instruments of torture.  The dialog is bizarre and macabre.  Padraic is trying to be reasonable - he has to punish this man, who was selling marijuana to schoolchildren, but he's trying to be as helpful as he can about it, for example by thoughtfully removing two toenails from the same foot, rather than one nail from each foot.  He encourages the man to choose one nipple that he will not remove.  His prisoner, in agony, alternately appeases and rages against him.  For the first time, I heard some gasps and groans along with the laughter from the audience.  A few people walked out.  The rest of us were now committed.  Padraic receives a call from Donny, warning that his cat is "sickly".  Padraic, up until now cool and upbeat, becomes unhinged, flying into a rage, and almost immediately heads for home.

We meet Davey's sister Mairead, a tomboy who wants to join the IRA or INLA, and is infamous for shooting out the eyes of cattle.  Rumor has spread that Davey killed the cat - rumors, it turns out, that were started by members of the INLA.  It was they who killed the cat, hoping to lure Padraic home, so that they could kill him.  Even by their standards he's too dangerous, torturing people who've paid them protection money and threatening to form his own splinter group.  These three terrorists are surprisingly comic with some Stoppard-ish conversations.

Davey has found a cat which is the wrong color, so he (it takes me this long to realize that Davey is a gay man and not a girl) and Donny spend the night trying to paint it black with shoe polish.  They get drunk.  They fall asleep.


Padraic arrives early.  He meets Mairead, who has overheard the INLA's plan, but rather than warn Padraic of the ambush she professes her love for him and asks him to go out with her, or at least let her join the INLA.  He won't have it.  He goes home, where Davey and Donny are still asleep.  Padraic may be crazy but he isn't dumb, and he quickly figures out what happened.  He wakes the two up, interrogates them, shoots the impostor cat, and prepares the execution.  They're surprisingly (and entertainingly) nonplussed by the whole situation.  At the very last second, the INLA arrives and takes Padraic.  He's about to go quietly to his execution, until Davey bad-mouths Wee Thomas, at which point he flies into a rage and needs to be dragged off, hollering his hatred.

Donny and Davey are safe, but not for long.  We hear shots and screams, and the three men stumble back inside, bleeding from their eyes.  Quietly following behind them are Padraic and Mairead - she turned the tables on the ambush, rescuing her lover.  The two of them silently stalk the blind killers, who are shooting out the windows, and one by one they kill them.  The deed done, they return to Davey and Donny.  The INLA squad leader, with a last breath, confesses killing Wee Thomas.  Padraic stops, and a horrible transformation comes over him.  He promises to torture the man for every one of his remaining moments.  The lights go down as the blood starts flying.

In the last scene, the stage has been transformed into an abattoir.  Not only is blood scattered everywhere, but corpses and corpse pieces are spread along the floor.  Padraic and Mairead have set Donny and Davey to the task of chopping up the bodies, a task that they fulfill with minimal grumbling.  Padraic continues petting Wee Thomas, then talks about the future with Mairead.  His earlier prejudices against women erased, they have discovered they are soulmates: both dedicated to Irish liberty, to killing, and deeply attached to their beloved cats.  Locked in a passionate embrace, they stumble around the house kissing one another and skittering around the blood-slicked floor.  Davey takes advantage of this distration to hide the evidence of the stolen decoy cat.  Padraic and Mairead order them to commence burning off the dead fingerprints and shipping out the teeth.  Padraic and Mairead discuss their new splinter group of two, to be called Wee Thomas's Army, which will dedicate itself to the freeing of Ireland and the protection of small cats.  Padraic confesses that he himself, in a rage, slew a cat earlier that day.  Mairead soothes him, then goes off to freshen up.

She discovers the dead cat, which, it turns out, is her own.  Her reaction is much like Padraic's, and she mercilessly kills the man she was about to marry.  Adding his corpse to Davey and Donny's list, she stalks out.  Davey hears a noise and looks at the shelves.  A cat!  Wee Thomas!  Turns out that the dead cat was just a black cat, not Thomas himself.  So it was all a big mistake.  How DARE the cat cause that kind of trouble!  It must be punished!

The play, already on the edge, is now careening wildly.  Davey and Donny grab the cat and force it onto a table, bringing out the instruments of death.  They give instructions to fire on the count of three.  I could easily see it going either way - the violence continuing on or finally stopping.  There's nothing left to prove, and neither man can bring himself to pull the trigger.  The curtain falls with the two huddled around the cat, cooing and stroking its fur.

Rapturous applause!


I stuck around afterwards for the Under 30 after-party.  This was much better than the cocktail hour, with free food and alcohol and music.  It was pretty crowded in the courtyard, so I headed out pretty soon.  BART is a mere block away, and soon I was happily on my way home.

I really enjoyed the play a lot, and recommend it to anyone who can stomach it.  I was actually kind of surprised by my visceral reaction to it.  I think of myself as being pretty desensitized to violence - I certainly play my share of violent video games and enjoy violent TV shows and movies.  Yet, in real life, I'm pretty squeamish and don't like seeing blood or violence.  It was interesting that the play felt like real life to me - I don't think seeing that much blood would have bothered me in a movie, yet it made me feel a bit ill here.  All curious stuff.

I can see why the play is so controversial - according to the program notes, it was written in 1996, but was not performed until 2001.  Nobody wanted to touch it because the subject matter was so controversial in the UK.  One can imagine a similar play written today and featuring Al Quaeda characters. 

And, of course, that's the point.  Plays don't HAVE to shock and provoke, but they can be very effective when they do so.  I'd say that the Lieutenant of Inishmore does a lot to make people think and start the conversation.

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