Arts Listings

The Theater: Wilde Irish Presents ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday April 06, 2007


Special to the Planet 


“A total waste of time that is, looking at cows.” With judgments like this, passed by one “pretend auntie” of Cripple Billy on the title character’s chief pastime in The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh (author of Berkeley Rep’s recent hit, The Pillowman), the audience is ushered into—and soon surrounded by—the bleak, back-biting and hysterically deadpan, insular world of one of the Aran Islands in the 1930s. There the news, according to ubiquitous, snooping Johnny Pateen, who gathers and recites it, consists of a feud (and a feud is to be relished) between two old friends, after the goose belonging to one bites the tail of the other’s cat, and no apology seems forthcoming. Wilde Irish is now staging the play at the Berkeley City Club, 

But caviling at cow-watching, speaking to rocks, pegging eggs at priests and other parochial preoccupations with each other’s eccentricities and mischief are upstaged by a truly momentous piece of news: an American film (or “fil-um”) crew has landed at nearby Inishmore, under the direction of Robert Flaherty, “one of the richest and most famous Yanks there is,” according to Johnny Pateen. What’s more, the local talent “will be taken back to Hollywood, anyone chosen to be in it, and given a life free of work.” 

That verbal banner headline raises enough of a stir to dampen the incessant complaining about Yanks a bit, bringing up a new golden phrase to be endlessly mutated and recycled: “Sure, and if they came all the way from Hollywood, Ireland can’t be such a bad place after all.” Or wondrous words to that effect. 

But when Cripple Billy learns that local terror, trash-talking tomboy Slippy Helen (“And why shouldn’t a lassie be swearin’?”) has twisted Babbybobby’s arm with a promise of kisses to row her to Inishmore to surely be cast as the romantic lead (“If I’m pretty enough to get clergymen gropin’ my arse ...” reasons Helen, but Bartley McCormack shoots back: “Sure, havin’ your arse groped don’t demand no skill!”), the suddenly enterprising Billy cons the boatman into taking him along, too, on the force of a doctor’s letter that must contain a dire prognosis—one that the lurking Johnny Pateen wants to convert to verbal copy for his raconteurish wire service ... . 

So the plot advances by devolving into a hundred seemingly insignificant subplots and asides that always come ‘round again, snowballing with absurd significance. And just like Zeno’s race between swift Achilles and the plodding tortoise, in which the quicker party must cover so much subdivided ground that the snail-like progress of his opponent easily overtakes him, so reverting to type (and endlessly talking about it) provokes the most unexpected series of reversals, and double-reverses. It’s not for nothing that a brand of Irish doubletalk is referred to as Doin’ the 180. 

Soon enough, the shag is worn off the dog, and the audience is still helplessly laughing at the saddest of predicaments as they inevitably worsen. But this cast of characters, quaint unto death, is bitterly determined. Even after the deepest, darkest truths have been plumbed, the Yank movie screened to the infighting islanders and revealed to be no more than a documentary, complete with shark hunts (“It was a shark ate Daddy,” intones Johnny Pateen’s besotted, disapproving Mammy, “But Jesus says you should forgive and forget!”) the wheel keeps turning, the worst turn out to be best, and a kind of love descends upon the loveless, although all is subject to change at the careless drop of a brutal word. 

Wilde Irish’s valiant cast—Andrew Sa, Arthur Scappaticci, Breda Courtney, Bryn Elizen Harris, Eddie Fitzgerald, Esther Mulligan, Howard Dillon, Shelley Lynn Johnson and Martin Waldron—brave the word-hoard of the darkly humorous McDonagh, making a very funny evening of a treacherous piece of work, one that must trick everyone in order to enlighten. For those who saw The Pillowman, the show at the City Club gives the opportunity to witness McDonagh’s fantastic humor (and dire speculations on what it means to walk the earth and talk about it) now grounded in the Ould Sod. The London-reared playwright had antecedents in Connemara, on Ireland’s West Coast, where the Arans are just off shore. 

The Cripple slips neatly into an ongoing literature of black comedy set in the western islands, with John Synge’s still-controversial masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World taking place in the Arans, and Myles na Gopaleen’s (better known by his other pen name, Flann O’Brien) misanthropic Gaelic novella, translated as The Poor Mouth, in the Blasketts. Each looks at the romancing of primitive Gaeltacht culture with a jaundiced eye, making it clear, too, why Orson Welles’ stage mentor, Michael MacLiammor of the Gate Theatre, on a challenge from his protege to come up with a one word description of the Irish, said “Malice!” And the false naivete of the characters, turned inside-out, recalls the loaded words of the 18th-century tinker Conor Cruise O’Brien liked to quote: “I never was a sadist, but always tried to look on the bright side of things.” 

Stephanie Courtney-Fox, daughter of company co-founder and “phony auntie” Breda Courtney, bellwether to this wayward flock, has shown real prowess in staging as she takes up the reins of Wilde Irish as the new artistic director.  

Wilde Irish has not only succeeded in putting across a dense, ingrown tale that threatens to devour itself—and maybe its listeners—at every turn, they’ve rendered its vertiginous, arch yet mocking tone well, too, through all its cruel vicissitudes. As one of the twisted souls of Inishmaan exclaims, on the verge of some mayhem, “It wouldn’t be a very Christian thing to do, but it would be awful funny!” 



Presented by Wilde Irish Productions at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through April 15 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $20-$25. 644-9940.