Martin McDonagh’s plays have inevitably been compared with those of his literary forebears. In the early twentieth century, John Millington Synge wrote of the bitterness and loneliness of rural Irish life, exacerbated by drunkenness and the grim, hypocritical strictures of the Irish Catholic Church. Synge didn’t shy away from the violence that stemmed from this repression. In The Playboy of the Western World, a timid young man becomes a hero to a group of villagers who believe he has killed his father. When the old man shows up with a bloody head wound but very much alive, Christy’s reputation is shot; further blows ensue, though the effect of all the head-bashing is somewhat softened by the lilt of Synge’s dialogue. There’s more violence than lilt to McDonagh. He grew up in London and was influenced by punk rock and Tarantino movies rather than tales of the emerald isle.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, now receiving a lively, funny, thought-provoking production at Miners Alley, is an earlier McDonagh play, and there are a few jokes unworthy of his usual savage talent — like the repeated comment that “Ireland must not be such a bad place” if “film people,” “French fellas” or “sharks” want to go there. Occasionally, there’s a descent into uncharacteristic sentimentality — and the insult or violence that almost always follows isn’t quite enough to ransom it. The script is set on one of Ireland’s bleak Aran Islands, and as depicted by McDonagh, the people of Inishmaan have their own nasty, brackish culture. Billy — the cripple of the title — was orphaned when his parents drowned soon after his birth, for reasons and in circumstances that are variously explained. He has been raised by the women he calls his aunties, Eileen and Kate. These two have their eccentricities, but they’re still the most human of the play’s characters.
Johnnypateenmike is the town gossip, wheedling food in exchange for his stories, some of them as meaningless and absurd as a sheep born without ears, some whose meanings turn out to be the opposite of what you’d expect — the battle between a cat and a goose and the feud carried on by their owners, for example — and some important in unanticipated ways. Johnnypateenmike is locked in a relationship with his rage-filled alcoholic mother, who refuses to die despite the fact that he plies her with booze. There’s also Helen, the nasty girl Billy secretly fancies, who spends much of her energy tormenting her weak-minded brother, Bartley.
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Everyone’s life is upended by news that a Hollywood director has arrived on the neighboring island of Inishmore to find actors for a film called Man of Aran. (This is based on fact: Man of Aran came out in 1934.) Billy decides to audition and cons fisherman Babbybobby into taking him to Inishmore in his curagh. Much of what you see isn’t what it seems, though, and the role of gossip and storytelling in creating reality looms large.
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Cripple is one of McDonagh’s less violent works, though clearly its blows and beatings are meant to be relished, and much of the humor comes from the continual psychological torment that the characters inflict on each other. The dialogue is full of unexpected, often lunatic connections. A lot of the bounce and movement comes from the repetition of certain words: Bartley’s pleas for “sweeties,” for instance, and the incantatory way he repeats the names of candies he wants: Mintios, Yalla Mellows, Fripple Frapples. Some bits of dramaturgy stun the senses. In McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, there’s a scene in which the protagonist attacks a pile of human bones with a sledgehammer, sending white powder and bone fragments flying; there’s a similar shock in Cripple when Helen slams an egg against Bartley’s forehead, declaring he’s Ireland and she’s England.
Dragging himself across the stage like a damaged insect, Cody Schuyler fully communicates Billy’s miserable life and unlikely dignity, and Meredith Young is pure venom as Helen. Sasha Fisher and Linda Suttle provide gentler grounding as Eileen and Kate, respectively. An appealing cheekiness sometime pierces Brandon Palmer’s slow-wittedness as Bartley. And a scene between Mark Collins’s Johnnypateenmike and Carla Kaiser Kotre’s lump of a Mammy is Dickensian in its energy and absurdity — and pure McDonagh in the brain-frying power of their mutual hatred.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, presented by Miners Alley through March 8, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden. For ticket information, call 303-935-3044 or go to minersalley.com.