Arts Listings

Berkeley Rep Stages ‘Lieutenant of Inishmore’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:25:00 PM

The question of who killed a cat on a lonely road in the remote Aran Islands becomes an overheated matter of life and death in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now onstage at Berkeley Rep. 

Since Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that the English upper classes sponsor poor Irish babies as an exotic foodstuff to replete their already groaning boards, Hibernian satire has been famous for its outrageous quality, taking the way of black humor as its via negativa of revelation of the human condition. 

The Lieutenant proves to be something of a reverse of Swift’s wild yet dispassionate logic. Here, internecine warfare, bloodletting and torture of one’s family and neighbors is promoted as the way to rid the Ould Sod of the perfidious Limeys, rendering it free for the love of Cats and Country. 

(On asking his old mentor for a one-word description of the Irish, Orson Welles reported that Micheal MacLiammor of Dublin’s Gate Theatre immediately replied, “Malice!”) 

An ailurophiliac lieutenant of an IRA splinter group leaves off torturing a local pot dealer for his crimes (mostly for paying the IRA protection money) and rushes home after hearing that his pet is “doing poorly.” He walks into a snare by the fellow terrorists he thought to be friends while his father and a long-haired young man who found the cat squashed frantically endeavor to cover up Wee Thomas’ demise. 

McDonagh employs an original blend of Celtic storytelling techniques that date from the pagan days of The Cattle Raid of Cooley up to Flann O’Brien, the 20th century’s “misanthrope’s misanthrope.” Some are old rhetorical tropes stood on their head. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), one of the first to describe the Irish of the Middle Ages, compared Celtic humor to the deliberate confusion— and reversal—of dependency of large and small in Latin: “What’s that little soldier doing attached to such a big sword?” 

McDonagh uses these modes of humor, entangling true with false, confusing big issues with smaller ones, so the love of cats becomes a fanaticism like extreme nationalism, blurring the already vague causality of why something sociopathic is performed supposedly to defend a domestic virtue. 

McDonagh also shows great dramaturgical savvy, both in the way he carefully prepares the audience for bigger and bigger outrages (and leaves them laughing helplessly) through the solemn denial of what went on just before, bringing the “action” around a full circle of senselessness, casting light on the non sequiturs and plain nonsense language that informs so much programmatic talk and ideological explanation. 

He also realizes onstage something like an evil burlesque of the tableau of bodies of those killed offstage in Greek Tragedy.  

Yet love blossoms amid the gore. 

It’s a brilliantly fashioned play, on the whole well-cast and played. But the night I saw it, there was something slack, something flat to the show. Whether due to end-of-the-first-week letdown in some, or things overlooked in Les Waters’ direction, it was hard to tell. 

James Carpenter sets a consistent ground-level tone of invective and self-delusion as Donny, the Lieutenant’s dad and queasy catsitter. And Molly Camp is brightly funny and unnerving as Mairead, girl sharpshooter who feels the first flush of womanhood as an exciting conflation of romance with bloodlust. 

Mairead, with her tomboy dreams of going north and giving The Troubles a woman’s touch, is the only female in this bellicose, all-male world, exemplified by Danny Wolohan, Rowan Brooks, and Michael Barrett Austin, who are funny and pathetic as the squabbling, would-be assassins. Even the cats sport men’s names; the orange tom the hapless geezers ply with bootblack to be Wee Thomas’ stand-in bears the tragic name of Sir Roger Casement, hanged by the English in 1916 for his part in the Easter Uprising. 

Mairead’s a poor-town version of the bloodlusty queens who people the Gaelic epics she was undoubtedly brought up on, and Molly Camp radiates that manic energy. Adam Farabee, on the other hand, seemed too shrill as long-haired, derided Davey, Mairead’s querulous brother. And Bake Ellis, as Padraic the sadistic Lieutenant, was intermittently effective and rather vaguely distracted, or disconnected. 

Knowing that the New York production portrayed the Lieutenant as an extravagant oddball with an overwrought sentimental streak when it comes to his cat, it’s plain there was a directorial choice to instead show Padraic here as a dispassionate, business-as-usual—at times, almost bureaucratic—killer, except when it comes to avenging his pussycat. There are a couple other production features, too, that slightly undercut a perfectly stageworthy interpretation a little: an overblown set (thatched cottage out of a Hollywood feature), and some film-score flavored, Irish-type music blaring between scenes that distracts from the well-wrought interlocking surprises of plot and story. 

(And all the chatter—before the play, during and after—about gallons of blood spilled and splattered onstage defeats the purpose of its quantity, and ad nauseum counterbalance to the hurried affirmations of patriotism and the bland kitsch of pet love.) 

McDonagh’s dialogue and his shaggy-dog storytelling zeal are barbed and complex. The Rep gets it onstage, in many ways convincing enough, but doesn’t manage to hit all the registers. 



8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays;  

2 and 7 p.m.. Sundays; and 7 p.m. Tuesdays through May 24. $33-71. 647-2949.