Fantasy Island

For at least the past hundred years, Irish-born playwrights have made it a habit to explode national myths by spinning stranger-than-fiction yarns of their own. Drawing his inspiration from the years he spent on the Aran islands thirty miles off Galway's west coast, John Millington Synge tried to evoke the islanders' enduring way of life by writing plays that combined coarse behavior with lilting speech. But his runny, if bitingly authentic, concoctions didn't always sit well on his countrymen's stomachs: The Playboy of the Western World, for instance, caused Dublin theatergoers to riot in 1907, when the play's sweet-talking protagonist bragged to a pub full of bumpkins that he'd used his trusty sod-cutter to bash out his father's brains.

In much the same way that Synge shattered romantic illusions about coastal life, Martin McDonagh uses brutally frank language to raise questions about art, reality and dreams. Or at least that's what the upstart dramatist appears to be doing in The Cripple of Inishmaan, a life study about a group of forlorn islanders whose petty routine is momentarily disrupted when real-life Hollywood director Robert Flaherty arrives on a neighboring isle to film his 1934 documentary, The Man of Aran.

The 150-minute work is being presented at the Space Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company, which last fall mounted a first-rate production of McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Unlike the quartet of unrequited souls in Beauty Queen, though, the unfulfilled residents of Inishmaan rarely manifest even the slightest determination to combat, much less escape, their collective misery. Save for the solitary, misshapen figure of the play's title, these petty-minded islanders seem resigned to their numbed and numbing existence. Although McDonagh obviously intends these physically hardy, spiritually stunted sorts to be flesh-and-soul opposites of the romantically inclined Cripple Billy, he fails to imbue them with the kind of drive and desire that would convince theatergoers to care about -- and therefore identify with -- their humdrum woes. Even that master of "nothing-ever-happens-in-my-life" drama, Anton Chekhov, endowed his dead-end dreamers with recognizable flickers of passion and ambition.

However, apart from tossing vulgar insults or various projectiles at one another, most of the doomed inhabitants of Inishmaan, the middle atoll in the three-island Aran chain, make only abortive efforts to relieve their perpetual dreariness. One addled woman surreptitiously nibbles away at a box full of candy that sits underneath the counter in the ramshackle store she runs with her sister, who, for her part, talks to stones in order to assuage her anxieties. A comely young lass takes out her frustrations by kicking and punching her candy-addicted brother -- and, out of spite (or maybe just for fun), smashes a few raw eggs over his head. Those quirks might resonate with tragicomic effect if the emotions that underlie them were hinted at or slowly revealed throughout, but McDonagh clumsily places, and then tries to manipulate, several jolting revelations near play's end -- long after our interest in the characters has begun to wane.

Adding confusion to ambiguity, it's never quite clear whether McDonagh's offbeat fable is meant to be a sly commentary on Flaherty's film, which, like all documentaries, is a subjective filtering of reality rather than the unedited, objective truth. In particular, one murky episode that's set in a Hollywood hotel room could be a scene in which Billy languishes after having discovered Tinseltown's shortcomings; or it might be a scene in which Billy, having fulfilled his ambition to grace the silver screen, is performing in a B movie about a struggling actor's difficulties. Unfortunately, the muddy passage isn't sufficiently one thing, the other or even an effective mixture of both.

But while Inishmaan sometimes lacks dramatic tension, progression and clarity -- at times the goings-on seem more suited to the realm of cruel farce than anything else -- director Bruce K. Sevy manages to bring plenty of humanity, gusto and playfulness to the fore. Except for one minor role that comes off as little more than the bluster of caricature, all of the actors render their parts with dimension and shading. Although she's considerably less experienced than her fellow cast members, many of whom are DCTC veterans, National Theatre Conservatory student Morgan Hallett plays the role of the egg-pegging Helen McCormick with professional aplomb. Whether she's scampering about with teenage exuberance, threatening the menfolk with bodily harm, spouting a volley of fiery insults or letting down her guard in a breathtaking, if brief, display of tenderness, Hallett is as convincing as she is entertaining. And DCTC newcomer Christopher Kelly's solid turn as Cripple Billy is never more moving -- nor more frightening -- than when his character's bottomless optimism gives way to determined defiance: He enforces a hushed, poignant silence when Billy, stripped of his past and bereft of any sort of future, attempts to find a final solution to his problems.

Tony Church delights as Johnnypateenmike, a squinting, toothless gossipmonger whose rough, uncouth ways manifest themselves far more frequently than his occasional weakness for sentiment. Usually cast as either a courtly advisor, wise servant or eccentric genius, the esteemed Church ambles through the juicy part in typically classy fashion, admirably resisting the temptation to chew every bit of scenery that's hydraulically lifted through the trap doors in the stage floor of faux cobblestones and rough-hewn boards. As his alcoholic, ninetysomething mother, Jane Welch turns in another marvelously detailed performance that's marked by Mammy O'Dougal's blithe indifference to the fact that her son is doing his best to kill her with drink. Kathleen M. Brady and Gordana Rashovich are a formidable tag team of nosy aunts, matching wits and trading fits in inimitably endearing ways. Elijah Alexander makes the most of the curious role of Babbybobby Bennett, a sometimes-sorrowful, easily provoked widower who, in keeping with McDonagh's devilish sense of humor, stumbles over words that begin with the letter "B." And as the sweet-toothed Bartley McCormick, the gangly David Ivers doggedly finds new ways to grub "sweeties" while dutifully offering up his pate to a nightly barrage of Hallett-hurled missiles.

Despite McDonagh's prodigious talent, however, it remains to be seen whether he'll make a habit of balancing his disarming sense of humor with the same sort of poignancy that made Beauty Queen an overnight success. Riots probably won't break out if he doesn't, but an interesting sea change might occur if he does.

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Jim Lillie

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