A More Nuanced McDonagh 

Druid theater company brings its sparkling Cripple of Inishmaan to Zellerbach Playhouse.

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Like all of Martin McDonagh's plays, The Cripple of Inishmaan is often described as a work of sordid humor, or comedy of the grotesque. Penned in 1996, it's the first work in McDonagh's Aran Islands Trilogy, set in a small archipelago off the west coast of Ireland. The second play in this triptych, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, came to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009, with an adorable kitty and more than 30 gallons of blood in tow. The third installment, The Banshees of Inisheer, was apparently written several years ago and stowed away for the time being.

Cripple, which first opened in 1997 at the Royal National Theatre in London, has been revived many times since its inception. It's widely considered to be the play that put McDonagh's name on the map. Acid wit and an unusual cast of characters are certainly part of its appeal: The protagonist is Cripple Billy, who "comes of age," so to speak, while muscling for a role in a Hollywood documentary about Aran. There's a rather unconventional love story mixed in, and an underlying subtext about exploitation. And, as in all of McDonagh's plays, it's virtually impossible to tell how things will turn out with each hairpin turn of the plot. There are stories-within-stories and vast constellations of meaning. Even in the early days of his career, McDonagh trafficked in suggestion.

Yet as with all plays, the success of Cripple depends on who produces it. Director Jerry Zaks took flak from critics for his 1998 production at the Public Theater in New York. A 2008 revival at Atlantic Theater fared far better, thanks to astute direction from Garry Hynes and her theater company, Druid. Hynes co-founded the company in 1975 and it's produced many canonical plays, including works by Beckett and Eugene O'Neill, J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, and McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which he wrote during the same feverish two-year spurt as Cripple. Hynes' monstrously smart interpretation of Beauty Queen won the director a Tony.

Now, Druid has taken its iteration of Cripple on a 21-week Irish and US tour, which includes a run at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley. Actor Tadhg Murphy stars as Billy, a role which requires him to inhabit a completely different body. Clare Dunne plays Slippy Helen, his smart-mouthed love interest who is equally enamored of the Hollywood dream. The other characters represent a whole repertory of small-town types, from gadflys, to withering spinsters, to castigating mothers, to kind-hearted idiots.

Much can also be said about the setting — a romanticized outback populated by salt-of-the-earth types, whose elocutionary style matches that of their counterparts in Inishmore. Indeed, there's something about the Aran Islands that provided a perfect muse for a London-born, Irish playwright. Village Voice critic Michael Feingold accused him of borderline exoticism. But fans consider this trilogy to be a linchpin of McDonagh's oeuvre. Hynes is a shrewd enough director to take the story well beyond the level of a class allegory, and bring its nuances into focus. The Cripple of Inishmaan opens Wednesday, May 4 and runs through May 14 at Zellerbach Playhouse (Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley Campus). $63-$68 CalPerfs.berkeley.edu

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