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Aran Yarn 

The Cripple of Inishmaan

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
The soul of Martin McDonagh's Cripple of Inishmaan is a scrappy Irish teenager called Slippy Helen. She brightens the play with a savagery that might as well be aimed straight at the heart of the Bay Area's cautious, pleasant, faux-dignified sensibilities. At least she seemed to shock Mountain View on opening night. "Sure, pegging eggs at a priest," says an old woman. "Isn't it pure against God?"

And Helen, who did the pegging, says, "Oh, maybe it is, but if God went touching me arse in choir practice I'd peg eggs at that fecker too."

What the TheatreWorks production half-understands is that McDonagh is joking. His merciless vision of Ireland is a caricature, not of Ireland alone but also of the Grand Irish Canon, which McDonagh pretends to be unanxious to join. Cripple features two clucking fussy Irish aunts, a Christ figure in the shape of Cripple Billy, and a drunken gossip serving as an updated classical messenger named (brilliantly) Johnnypateenmike. The Irish cuteness derided in that name is as much of a joke as Slippy Helen, but director Robert Kelley has settled on exaggerated cuteness instead of savagery as the essence of McDonagh's satire. The result expresses itself, in the set, as a soft-focus, phony-nostalgic peat brick that looks like a sponge; in the score, as overweening fiddle music; and in the cast, as occasional cloying softness and strained Irish accents. Don't get me wrong -- this production is basically sound. I'm just giving you the surface flaws up front.

Cripple Billy is an orphan teenager living on Inishmaan, one of the Aran Islands, where two would-be aunts have raised and sheltered him since his parents drowned. His life is miserable, but when Robert Flaherty comes from Hollywood in 1934 to direct his romantic documentary The Man of Aran, Slippy Helen and her brother Bartley slip off to the movie set, hoping to land bit parts. ("If I'm pretty enough to get clergymen groping me arse, it won't be too hard to wrap film fellas 'round me fingers," says Helen.) Billy sneaks off with them, nursing unlikely dreams of deliverance.

Like Beauty Queen of Leenane -- which the Berkeley Rep premiered on the West Coast last fall -- Cripple relies on a rising series of twisted expectations, so telling much else about the plot will spoil it. There's more happening thematically than there is in Beauty Queen, but not as much emotionally. McDonagh toys with Christ themes, with Billy's quest, and with moral crippledness in a suggestive, unsentimental style, but Beauty Queen sounded a note of real grief that Cripple doesn't touch; Cripple, in fact, is a comedy.

Edward Sarafian cuts maybe the funniest figure as Johnnypateenmike, a tremendous old blowhard in glasses and wild hair who stands near the stage's edge to deliver his "pieces o' news" like a captain on the prow of a wind-beaten ship. Sometimes Sarafian overdoes it, and turns Johnnypateenmike into an overgrown leprechaun, but most of the time his comic sense is impeccable. Phoebe Moyer and Elizabeth Benedict have a nice rapport as the two aunts; together they're a meddlesome mess of worry, although individually they tend to fall apart. Sarah Overman, as Slippy Helen, needs to be excellent and is (she's both coquettish and bottomlessly cruel); Mark Phillips as Babbybobby, the boatman, does solid work until his climactic violent scene; but Travis Engle, as Billy, was uneven on opening night. Billy passes through a wide range of moods, serious and false, and it's sometimes hard to tell whether Engle means it or not, which is a problem with the whole production.

The best part of Cripple is the way it answers a real film -- The Man From Aran -- by contrasting its old misty notion of Ireland with a cruel caricature of the way rural Irish tend to behave. Kelley's decision to use that spongy stage rock, along with swirling dry ice, emphasizes the contrast with a highlighter pen, but also softens Billy's circumstances, and makes his life seem dreamy and mythical. This is the opposite of what's wanted. Why would Cripple Billy try to leave a mythi- cal Ireland? For the same reason kids in Orange County want to escape from planned communities? The equation doesn't hold up.

So the largely strong production leaves room for even more pain and gleeful savagery. I wanted more because McDonagh avoids indulging himself just for the hell of it. His brand of savagery is affectionate, familiar, the kind of anti-sentiment you feel for your brother. It's wholesome. And it's exactly what American movies and plays began to lose, about 20 years ago, in the opposite but related directions of priggish politeness and senseless blood.


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