Stage review: Irish near-farce delves into death and loss


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Whatever else it may be -- and it's a lot -- "A Skull in Connemara" is a conclusive argument for cremation. Were you assuming you'd have your body buried in six feet of good earth? I don't think so, not after seeing Martin McDonagh's grisly, comic and oddly affecting play.

Of course Mr. McDonagh isn't the first playwright to use skulls on stage. Think first of "Hamlet" -- look at Mick with his loved one's skull and you can hardly avoid the iconic image of the contrastingly handsome young prince in similar contemplation. And Mr. McDonagh is far from the first Irish playwright to have knockabout fun with skull battering, on stage or off -- one of the greatest of plays, Irish or otherwise, "The Playboy of the Western World," started it off with a parallel tale of a country lout reappearing after having apparently been bashed to death.

'A Skull in Connemara'

Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre at Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, University of Pittsburgh.

When: Through Sept. 28. 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sunday; also 2 p.m. Sept. 28.

Tickets: $25-$48 (students $20); 412-561-6000, ext. 207; picttheatre.org.

There are other echoes in "Skull." Just about everything cuts both with and against stereotype. Take "Mick," the derogatory nickname imposed on the Irish by outsiders (English, mainly). This Mick Dowd is far more sensitive than he is prepared to admit, although it may take the final image of the play to drive it home.

Even the old battle-ax buttinsky neighbor and the thick cop come in for reimagining at Mr. McDonagh's hands. In the midst of apparent mayhem, "Skull" slips in surprise character revelations that make you reassess what you think you've seen.

If this excursion into the dark byways of the Celtic west seems familiar, you may remember the other two-thirds of Mr. McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (City Theatre 2000) or "The Lonesome West" (Playhouse Rep 2011). The three share a fictional setting in small-town Connemara, with references in one play to characters in another.

The plot is simple enough. Although Mick was officially cleared of purposefully causing his wife's death in a traffic accident seven (magic number) years ago, gossip still suspects otherwise. The time has come round for his occasional job of moving bones in the cramped churchyard to make room for new arrivals -- this time, his wife's bones included. What does he discover, and what does it mean?

That simple plot, with several twists, is bolstered by witty revelation. For example, we have to pay attention to discover how the characters are related, and it's shocking to our ideas of propriety and probability when we do. Also, the PICT program assures us that such exhumation of bones is a common practice. You'd think they'd employ a substitute bone-mover in this case, but it's a small town.

Mr. McDonagh shows himself a worthy heir of the tradition of Synge, O'Casey, Behan, Friel and the rest of the great Irish playwrights mainly in character, language and rhythm. He heightens these beyond realism, and the task of the director and actors is to decide how antic or even surrealistic a mode to strike.

Director Martin Giles and his cast go too far, especially at the beginning. Or maybe it was just hard to tell on opening night, when a house packed with happy guests started off determined to greet every line with gales of often irrelevant laughter.

Eventually the actors settle down from comic shtick into the earthier (but still moderately heightened) mode the play requires. In that, Mick (50ish) sets a solid base line of dour acceptance, resisting the nebby prodding of elderly Maryjohnny (70), leaving the hyper Mairtin (20) to cavort wildly, spouting a wild mix of imagination, greed and pop culture.

As Mick, actor James Keegan anchors the play with a stolidity that masks deep pain, then believably breaks out in drunken release and finally subsides into emotional exhaustion. Mr. Keegan could hardly be better.

Youthful contrast is provided by Alec Silberblatt's nervy, hyper Mairtin, whose inner life is so feverish he bounces about like a superball. It seems excessive at first, but gradually it earns belief as a true expression of Mairtin's mix of stupidity and intelligence, suspicion and naivete.

It's easy to dismiss Sharon Brady's Maryjohnny as a cliche gossip, but stick with her and you see the intelligence hidden behind her eyes. Jason McCune's policeman ("guard" is the Irish word) seems a simpler case of officious folly, but his sins stem from an emotional neediness we come to recognize.

The creative team led by Gianni Downs (realist-expressionist set) and Chris Popowich (painterly lights) matches PICT's usual skills. As to Mr. Giles' direction, any inconsistency may be due to his having to leave the project for some weeks due to illness.

The problem with the play's hyper opening is that it may turn some off before they discover the real people and the serious emotional issues of loneliness and loss that inhabit this gaudy near-farce. Under all the laughter, this is a serious play about the eternal presence of the past. Until death us do part? Not so.

theaterreviews

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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