Anyone familiar with the plays of Martin McDonagh should brace himself for grisly spectacles and gallows humor whenever a new one comes to town. McDonagh is, after all, most famous for The Pillowman, an astonishing work about a man who became a successful fiction writer by listening to the sounds of his brother being tortured every night. The Pillowman jarred audiences when it came to Berkeley Rep two years ago under the shrewd direction of Les Waters, who revisited McDonagh's oeuvre with this year's equally gruesome production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. From the opening, when the grizzled Irishman Donny (James Carpenter) lifts a dead cat from his coffee table — allowing its head to dangle precariously from its neck — you can tell where the play is going.
At first it appears that the cat was killed in a bicycle hit-and-run, and the culprit is Donny's slacker-neighbor Davey (the hilarious Adam Farabee). The true story is, of course, much more complicated: the cat (a big, black, scruffy guerilla of felines named Wee Thomas) actually belongs to Davey's terrorist son Padriac (Blake Ellis), a lieutenant in an IRA splinter group called the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). And it was assassinated by Padriac's erstwhile comrades as a ploy to get Padriac to rush home so they could kill him, too. The story takes an entire play to unravel, which is part of the beauty of McDonagh's writing: He has a wonderful way of withholding details and allowing his plays to get ever-more labyrinthine, saving the "aha" moment for the very end. Nonetheless, McDonagh establishes his characters and his political subtext right away.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore is really about the IRA and its various splinter groups, all of which evidently saw violence as something enabling and liberating — even though it rarely gets them anywhere. In some respects, the play is very specifically Irish. The socialist INLA was, in fact, a paramilitary faction launched in 1974 by defectors from the original IRA. Intended as a Marxist separatist group, it targeted both the British and its parent organization, the IRA, whose members were also attacking the British. Only a person well-versed in Ireland's tangled political history would understand the point of forming a rogue group to undermine a large liberation army, when both the rogue group and the large army appear to be fighting a common enemy. But therein lies McDonagh's humor. It turns out he didn't have to go to absurd lengths to poke fun at the INLA's utterly ineffectual approach. The outlandishness was already there for him; All McDonagh had to do was throw a dead cat into the mix.
Given its subject matter, one would expect a surfeit of blood and guts in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the play does not disappoint. The (obviously fake) dead cat in scene 1 is just a preview of coming attractions: In the course of two hours, we are treated to torn fingernails, shooting massacres, eyes getting poked out, corpses getting ripped from limb from limb, and roughly thirty gallons of fake blood splashed across the stage. (The program notes say twelve — but that seems conservative.) And, yes, this is a comedy. McDonagh's humor operates on many levels. There's a slapstick element to most of the character pairings: Davey and Donny, whose fear of Padriac leads them to paint an orange cat with shoe polish and pretend it's Wee Thomas (which only gets everyone in deeper trouble); Padriac and the drug pusher James, who come to a weird reconciliation when Padriac, midway through torturing James, finds out that Wee Thomas is "poorly"; Padriac and Davey's tomboy sister Mairead (a surly but guileful Molly Camp), whose sexual chemistry seems natural because they are both sadistic, gun-wielding, political extremists with a soft spot for cats. Even if you don't understand the Irish references or find the actors' accents unintelligible, there's enough physical comedy to keep the play moving forward.
Yet, McDonagh's humor also operates on a more sophisticated level. The weird alliances and disloyalties between his characters mirror the ones in Ireland's various political blocs. Neither Mairead nor Padriac would hesitate to gun down a family member who stood in the way of their political ambitions, just as the members of INLA are quick to fight other Irish republican factions over an ideological splitting of hairs. In fact, the tit-for-tat between members of McDonagh's fictionalized INLA has real historical grounding. "I'd've never joined the INLA in the first place if I'd known the battering of cats was to be on the agenda," said Padriac's would-be killer Joey (Michael Barett Austin). "The INLA has gone down in my estimation today."
Of course, the play's big joke is Wee Thomas, the apparent Helen of Troy in this production. When the real cat (yes, a real cat) crawls through a back window, unscathed, you'll hear a collective "awwwwww" in the audience — followed by a shudder. We've just watched McDonagh whack about two-thirds of his cast. Could he possibly add a furry animal to the carnage? No one would put it past him.
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