Thursday, October 30, 2008

When Irish eyes are blinded

Colin Hamell pulls a John Woo on Lynn R. Guerra in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

Horror, like history, repeats itself as farce. Only when it comes to the tropes of Quentin Tarantino, that seems to have happened post-haste. Just two years after the premiere of Reservoir Dogs (its iconic torture sequence, below), British (not, actually, Irish) playwright Martin McDonagh retreated to his room to adapt Tarantino's cinematic sadism to the stage, churning out seven plays in nine months - his entire stage corpus, in fact, which has been premiering at a steady pace over the past dozen years to ever-mounting acclaim (he's been nominated for four Tonys, but never won).

Torture as staged entertainment: Reservoir Dogs.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is the penultimate play in this brutal oeuvre (the last, The Banshees of Inisheer, has yet to be produced or published), and has at last reached Boston (at the New Rep through Nov. 16). And like its predecessors, it's got Tarantino's (and his own mentor, John Woo's) bloody fingerprints all over it. Which to cinéastes, who imagine theatre should be more like film, rather than its own art form, is undoubtedly a good thing. To theatre queens, of course, the fact that McDonagh is so obviously derivative is a bit more troubling.

Still, it's intriguing to ponder, through McDonagh's prism, how much like theatre Tarantino's early films often are (McDonagh may have been the first to perceive this, but was certainly not the last). Though fragmented, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs both operate via static scenes, often in enclosed surroundings, and it's rather telling that Tarantino has never managed the kind of purely cinematic sequence that, say, Scorsese or Spielberg (much less Hitchcock, Kubrick or Godard) toss off pretty much at will. No, like a playwright, Tarantino's always talking, and talking, and his camera stays at medium distance, watching his actors.

But to be blunt, McDonagh's a much better playwright than Tarantino, whose innovative structures are usually pretty sloppy. McDonagh, by comparison, is a precision engineer. Not for him the self-indulgent digressions that distend Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, or the tedious Grindhouse (which McDonagh would have boiled down to a short). Everything in a McDonagh play happens (or is said) for a reason; the author's a veritable neatnik of nastiness: by the bitter finale, every plot hole is plugged, every loose end tied up in a noose.

Which brings us back to The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Remember what I said about horror repeating as farce, about how Frankenstein inevitably meets Abbott and Costello? Well, McDonagh's brilliant insight in Lieutenant was that the torture scenes in Tarantino - which always involved ridicule of their victims - could easily be pushed to the level of boulevard farce. Which is precisely what The Lieutenant of Inishmore is; it's a comic contraption worthy of (actually, better than) Feydeau - only murder has replaced sex as the repressed desire of its characters, many of whom are members of the IRA.

This change, of course, gives the play whatever scrap of larger significance it has. While never making any explicit political points - and certainly never working through the actual checkered history of Ireland or Sinn Féin - McDonagh exploits his terrorists the way Tarantino did his gangsters: for every variation of violence imaginable. To these Irish wiseguys, even the slightest slight requires blood retribution, and mayhem has become routine, both for them and the larger culture (one funny exchange runs, "You can't walk down the street covered in blood!""Why not, who would notice?""The tourists!"). The only sentiment still allowed in Ireland, it seems, is for pets; hence even the most cold-blooded killer can have a cute attachment to, say, a kitten - indeed, the trigger for the plot of Inishmore is the murder of a terrorist's cat.

This soft spot, needless to say, is merely a contrivance (like fetishes are in Feydeau) to keep the plot going and the blood spurting - the aggrieved party is intent on vengeance, and even patricide seems nothing next to "catricide." To be sure, as the arterial spray becomes a gusher, than a geyser, it can be hard to recall that this is all slapstick. But at the same time it's impossible to read it as anything else. McDonagh has a point or two to make about the moral calculus of terrorism: in a nice exchange, a young IRA wannabe explains that the cows she blinds are "acceptable targets" because they were part of the food supply; the suffering of the poor creatures themselves, of course, has no place in the equation - tellingly, she eventually begins to put out the eyes of other terrorists, too, who become as literally blind as they were morally blind.

But without this very coldness, McDonagh would be without material, because he's rather a cold fish himself (I can't think of another playwright loaded with as much youthful contempt), and he doesn't seem interested in really developing his characters; they're just props intended for ironic effects (indeed, a last gambit to pull the play into semi-tragic, Synge-like territory goes wrong because of this utter superficiality). At the same time, though, it must be admitted that terrorists are McDonagh's perfect subject, in that we can share for them his cold regard - he can off them at will, and we won't mind. Indeed, he carefully metes out death only to the deserving in Inishmore, so the whole bloodbath ends on an upbeat note. The young woman in front of me stood up after the curtain, gazed at the blood-sprayed stage, and told her date, "That was cute!" and she meant it. It was cute.

Terrorists Ross MacDonald, Andrew Dufresne and Curt Klump convene in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Still, there's something troubling about that attitude. There's a direct cultural line from Reservoir Dogs to Abu Ghraib, and you have to wonder whether McDonagh's audience is any less morally bankrupt than his terrorists are. There's something more than a little Senecan about today's entertainment, and even though we're not yet literally killing people on our stages, sometimes I think it's really only a matter of time before we are; I mean, how much further can synthetic violence go? (By the end of Inishmore, characters are lackadaiscally sawing up fresh corpses on stage.)

Still if McDonagh's - and Tarantino's - material is steadily losing its power to disturb, that also gives me some hope. Maybe even stage blood has a shelf life. Inishmore feels very much of its era - i.e., 1995 - when Pulp Fiction was pushing adolescent buttons around homosexuality and race, and there was a Weimar-like mood surrounding the Clintons. The form morphed into pure torture porn like Saw after 9/11, but now times have changed yet again, and Tarantino's giggling sadism and homophobia (and even his libertarianism) all look immature, and a little sad: Grindhouse bombed, Saw VI is going direct to video, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, produced twelve years after it was written, is chiefly interesting for its craft, not its content.

And at the New Rep, David R. Gammons's production is generally worthy of that craft, although foamy brogues thicker than a head of Guiness sometimes dowse the lines, and a key piece of action occurs a little too far offstage. The production does have a major gap at its center, in that Colin Hamell, a resourceful and precise comic actor, is utterly unconvincing as the lead psychopath - but then that largely helps along the farce anyway, particularly given only one of his terrorist rivals is remotely frightening either. (The comedy's likewise helped by the fact that in the end, even the bloodiest stage business is always more artificial than movie violence.) The standouts of the cast are probably Karl Baker Olson as the amusingly twitty boy-next-door who discovers the stiff kitty, and Lynn R. Guerra as his wannabe-terrorist sister. Guerra is actually almost too comely in her Jean Seberg 'do, and her performance is sometimes a little pushy; but then again, she nearly makes the last act work, and that's saying a lot. Rory James Kelly provides solid comic backup as the terrorist's very dim da, and for awhile Andrew Dufresne brings a few frissons of real menace to the mysterious Christy. The physical production is strong, although not perhaps all that original; the thrash soundtrack in particular is something of a cliché - although I did like Janie E. Howland's monolithic stones, which stick up from the loam like dead, severed fingers. If only they pointed a way out of all the carnage.

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