Forget the rugged beauty and natural splendor of the small, windswept islands off the west coast of Ireland. The Arans' isolation and foul, monotonous weather can render life dull and dreary; their brutal elements and rocky shores can make everyday routines monotonous and maddening. That's the impression, at least, that emerges from the Evergreen Players' compelling production of Martin McDonagh's black comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan.
With finely honed Irish brogues and a refined sense for the basic tenets of the country's fine black-comedy tradition, the Evergreen troupe offers a transportive performance, bringing an evocative sense of the madness, wit and dysfunction of the rural Irish countryside to a small theater in the Colorado mountains.
It's clear that the nine members of the cast did their homework in preparing for roles in the character-driven comedy -- their accents, their sense of timing and even their collective flair for cursing in a decidedly Irish style are all spot-on.
More noteworthy is the production's fidelity to a specific literary tradition. McDonagh draws on cues from countless Irish playwrights and authors for his humor: Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien and Roddy Doyle all find echoes in the mix. Think of the sly existentialism of Waiting for Godot, for example, mixed with the strong atmospherics of The Commitments.
The comedy features a pitiable protagonist. played with affecting earnestness by Cody Robinson: Cripple Billy, as he is labeled by the rest of the island's residents, walks with a noticeable limp and can't use one of his hands. His handicap was the spur for his abandonment by his parents as a child, though the exact motivations behind their flight remain murky.
Reared by his "aunties" Helen (Rebecca Donnella) and Eileen (Linda Suttle), two shopkeeps who boast no real family ties, Billy lives as a joke in the island's small community. When news is spread by the island's resident blabbermouth, Johnnypateen (Art Goodman), that filmmaker Robert Flaherty is looking for actors for his film "Man of Aran," Billy sees a bridge to a new life in America.
Along with the town simpleton, Bartley (Gregg Yates), and his imposing, combative sister Kate (Kathleen Davis), Billy catches a boat ride from Babbybobby (Brian Sides) and seeks his fortune in the still-budding film industry.
He has a chance to give the locals a detailed report of his success when he returns to the island for the local premiere of "Man of Aran."
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The comedy is rooted in long strings of dialogue and sometimes explosive confrontations. As Johnnypateen, Goodman is one of the production's highlights in his portrayal of the town gossip, constantly looking for rewards for his stories about local livestock and drama between residents. The character's dust-ups with his ninety-year-old alcoholic mother, played by Chip Winn Wells, also stand out.
Similarly, Kathleen Davis's portrayal as the bully Kate is compelling in an almost embarrassing way. The character's sheer meanness toward her brother, toward Billy and toward the entire town in general is disgusting, but it's impossible not to watch. It's a quality that marks much of the character interaction in the play. Characters twisted by their boring, isolated surroundings are constantly at each other's throats. They're caught up in endless bickering, an endless stream of gossip and a sometimes unnerving amount of malice.
Still, there is a surprising degree of sympathy here, especially considering the setting of the piece.
For all the dark humor embedded in the comedy's characters, "The Cripple of Inishmaan" pulls much of its pervasive ennui from an overwhelming sense of environment. Director David Blumenstock succeeds in making Inishmaan -- the largest of the Aran Islands -- a constant character; its sway is inescapable in the interactions of the people, in their hangups and their foibles. The piece is officially set in 1934, but there's a distinct impression that a similar pace of life continues on Inishmaan in the 21st century.