A Skull in Connemara opens with two people talking in a shabby cottage in Leenane, a village on Ireland's bleak western coast. The two are Mick Dowd, played by Lawrence Hecht and the aged Mary Rafferty, given shuffling, mumbling life by Kathleen M. Brady. Dowd is a handyman, and one of his jobs is to dig up some of the skeletons in the town's small graveyard every year to make room for new corpses. This year, he will be exhuming the body of his wife, whom some people in town suspect him of murdering. Mary Rafferty wants to know how the skeletons are disposed of; she has heard they're smashed and tossed away. After enjoying her distress for several minutes, Dowd reassures her that the bodies are handled with the utmost reverence and respect.
The conversation, lubricated by liberal splashes of poteen -- a liquor distilled from potatoes -- is salacious, resigned, pointed, evasive, funny. Playwright Martin McDonagh was born and raised in London, his exposure to Ireland limited to summer holidays. Though his dialogue sounds bone-deep authentic, he has, like John Millington Synge before him, invented the speech patterns in his plays. Synge said he found his characters' dialects by listening at keyholes. McDonagh's inspiration is more rough edged. He cites the influence of playwright David Mamet, who can turn the casual curses and obscenities of daily life into something very like music. (Further insight into McDonagh's tastes comes from an interview a couple of years back, in which he commented that he was watching South Park and Jerry Springer.)
A Skull in Connemara confounds stereotypical notions of Irishness -- from boozy songs to the green beer poured in America for St. Patrick's Day to the tramps and lonely women of traditional Irish poetry and drama. The characters in Skull are boozy all right, but they're also mean-spirited, indifferent to pain -- their own or anyone else's -- and given to moments of mindless violence and equally mindless tenderness. If there's a theme to A Skull in Connemara, it has something to do with festering secrets, human cruelty and an all-pervasive sense of rot.
A Skull in Connemara
Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Through November 17
Yet watching the play is anything but depressing, and I think there are several reasons for this. One is the dopey cheerfulness of teenager Mairtin Hanlon, recipient of most of the play's verbal and physical abuse. He bounces back after every blow like one of those punching clowns that won't stay down, no matter how sharply they're tilted. There's also something musical and forgiving about the language, even when the action's at its most jagged. Above all, the play is side-splittingly funny. Some of the most hilarious moments are silent and reactive: One character gazes unbelievingly at another after a particularly outrageous sally.
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Things move into high gear when Dowd, accompanied by Mairtin, is at his work in the graveyard, a ghoulishly cheerful gravedigger. It's impossible to see a man standing in an open grave with a skull in his hand without expecting the next line to be "Alas, poor Yorick," but the Irish have their own way of relating to the dead, as well as an uneasy habit of rising from their ranks. Dowd explains to Mairtin what happens to dead men's penises; Mairtin fashions breasts of a pair of skulls. Then Mairtin's brother, Tom, shows up. He's a cop who's bent on solving crimes in the manner of the investigators he's watched on American TV shows -- a quiet, serious man with a pedant's love for order, pathetically convinced that the truth will out as long as he carefully differentiates between insult and insinuation, hearsay evidence and circumstantial, a hamster and a cat.
In the next scene, skulls, femurs and pelvises are scattered on Dowd's table. He and Mairtin, falling down drunk, are pulverizing these bones with hammers. Though the dialogue remains uproariously funny, it's not the words that rivet here, but the actions and images, the lingering impression they convey that every one of us is banging around blindly in a charnel house.
Anthony Powell's direction is first-rate. The Denver Center Theatre Company's production values are impressive -- the dreary cottage with its mismatched chairs and plastic Virgin Mary, the shapeless clothes the characters seem to have worn for days -- and nowhere more so than in the graveyard scene where shadows creep across the flagstones and Dowd pries up a coffin lid with a deep, groaning creak. Hecht has a voice and presence as cozy as an old sweater, which makes Dowd's cruelties seem even more blood chilling. John Sloan plays the irrepressible Mairtin, always talking, always in motion, his limbs seeming continually about to fly off in separate directions. Stephen Paul Johnson brings a wonderfully daft clarity to the role of Tom the cop.
McDonagh may owe an artistic debt to Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, but A Skull in Connemara leaves a residue in the mind more reminiscent of the work of another Irishman. "They give birth astride of a grave," says Pozzo, in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. "The light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." And later, Estragon enlarges on the conceit: "Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries."