Arts & Events

Theater Review: "Cripple" at Zellerbach

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday May 10, 2011 - 08:26:00 PM

"They all want to come to Ireland--Germans, dentists, everybody ... why?"

"Because the people in Ireland are so friendly!"

From the first glimpse of the lit stage--a tableau of a spartan country store, a woman behind the counter frowning over a can of peas she's holding--the Druid production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC campus, unimposingly announces itself as humorous theater ... theater and humor of the first water. 

Set in the remote Aran Islands--where John Synge, of Playboy of the Western World fame (which Druid staged here triumphantly in 2008), located many of his plays and stories--The Cripple depicts a rather knowing lot of local eccentrics; no false naives here. They stare at cows, speak to stones, hoard the imported sweets they should be selling at the store, eavesdrop at doors and behind rocks on the beach to gather gossip--and incessantly slag the others for cow-gazing, stone-chatting, sweet-hoarding ... Friendly and malicious Irish folk indeed! And McDonagh's dialogue takes them through their paces, and us through ours, reiterating, and disabusing us and them of every cliche of colorful countryfolk and Erin Go Braugh. 

There's Cripple Billy Clavan (Tadhg Murphy), who reads books and stares at cows, mainly to get away from his "phony aunties," who've raised him since his parents drowned themselves when he was an infant, chafing at his monicker and at admonishments like, "Stop thinking aloud! Did you ever see the Virgin Mary thinking aloud? It didn't do her any harm!" His phony aunties, Kate and Eileen (Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy, a splendid deadpan vaudeville act), keep the store, bicker, think of Billy constantly--and simmer with resentment when he leaves them and the island to find his way in the world, with "not a word, not a word, not a word, not a word, not a word!" 

"I'll leave my best piece of news till the end so you'll be waiting for it!" announces local "news service" busybody JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley), later delivering the verbal banner headline that a film crew from Hollywood, led by "one of the richest Americans, Robert Flaherty (director of Nanook of the North), is on another of the islands making a documentary (Man of Aran, 1934). 

Joining fractious tomboy and self-proclaimed beauty queen Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne) and hapless, telescope-happy Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), Billy eases his way onto the currach Babbybobby's (Liam Carney) rowing to meet the film crew by showing him a doctor's letter with bad news, gaining the sympathy of the boatman, whose own mother died of consumption. He doesn't come back, but later sends a note that he's off to The States for a screen test. "I don't know at all what a screen test is!" his phony auntie fumes. 

Up, down, over, around and sideways go the words these characters slander and cajole each other with, sometimes spat out as imprecations, other times rolling off the tongue like a bon mot. They both conceal and reveal, confirm and contradict character--and what that character's up to--and bring in other characters never seen, only cattily referred to in the endless gossip. 

The end of the play is, surprisingly, a qualified happy one--heavily qualified ... The ironic motto may well be "There's no place like home," from between clenched teeth. What's Hollywood like? "Just the same as Ireland, really ... Full of fat women with beards!" 

This kind of dialogue and outlook traces back to Euripides, near the origins of written drama as we know it: "Man is sometimes good--and sometimes he is evil." 

One high point of many is the villagers in a row, downstage, staring above the audience as they watch a screening of Man of Aran, both rapt and caviling at the film and each other, while JohnnyPateenMike's Mammy O'Dougal--who JohnnyPateen's even bragged to Doctor McSharry (Paul Vincent O'Connor) about trying to kill with the drink--defiantly swills from the bottle, pitying the poor shark killed on screen (in one of the most doctored sequences of the "documentary"): "It was a shark ate Daddy. But Jesus says you must forgive and forget!" 

"What news is there in putting things behind you? There is no news!" News or reminiscence, feud or uneasy alliance, these islanders grease their days with a stream of words--and Druid co-founder Garry Hynes--the first to stage McDonagh and first woman to win a Tony for directing with his Beauty Queen of Leenane--leads these splendid actors through the maze of McDonagh's script, full of both repetitions and reversals, with exquisite tempo, the spare acting springing directly from the language and the windswept situation of the scene, the only effect being a pleasing (and pleasingly simple) lighting effect at the very end, which serves as denouement. 

Irish theater, historically, has been closer to European theater--and of the world--than English or North American. That's true of Druid, which specializes in Irish drama, but don't limit themselves to it. They've performed Streetcar, they've performed O'Neill--and I wish I'd seen it! They could do justice to Chekhov. For theatrical storytelling, true staging that reveals a play instead of "tarting it up," there're few companies in our language anything like Druid. Their presence here is a cultural event of real importance. 

Shows through Saturday, 8 p. m., with a Saturday matinee at 2, Zellerbach Playhouse, near Bancroft Way and Dana. 642-9988;