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February 3, 2012

'A Skull in Connemara' gets smashing production at Center Stage

If you are perfectly at peace with the dust-to-dust concept — you know, the reality that all of us, except maybe Lenin and Kim Jong Il, are going to disintegrate anyway after we die, so who cares how? — then the sight of a few old bones being pulverized by mallets won’t bother you.

Otherwise, you may feel just a wee bit twitchy during the second half of Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Connemara,” a dark-as-night comedy enjoying a decidedly vivid production at Center Stage. You may want to avoid a front row seat, too.

Bone particles (or a realistic semblance thereof) fly as forcefully as insults and insinuations in this play. It’s set in an Irish town where space in the church yard cemetery is at such a premium that those who have rested in peace for seven years are disinterred to make way for fresh customers.

OK, so. That sure sounds extreme, but not in Connemara.

No one even gives this practice much thought until Mick Dowd, the man in charge of the skeletal business, faces the prospect of uncovering his own wife. You see, her death never was satisfactorily explained for some people in town, so reopening her grave takes on a whole new level of interest.

Things get pretty messy, in physical and emotional terms, before the digging (also in physical and emotional terms) is done. Oddly enough, things get awfully funny, too.

“A Skull in Connemara” springs from ...

a surreal well of humor that started generating an extraordinary group of works by McDonagh in the mid-1990s. This piece, the second entry in what became known as the Leenane Trilogy, might be thought of as a fusion of a Monty Python skit and the 1990s sitcom “Father Ted,” which was set on a bleak and loopy Irish island.

But the wit, some of it hammered home, is balanced by a spooky, serious streak that forces you to look twice at the oddball characters McDonagh conjures up in a corner of County Galway.

In this forlorn spot, jerks and quirks appear plentiful — Maryjohnny Rafferty, the grandmother who cheats at church bingo; Thomas Hanlon, the policeman who obsesses about “a pot of jam and a lettuce in the fridge of the fattest man you’ve ever seen in your life”; his younger brother, Mairtin, whose thickheadedness will come in handy as the plot unfolds.

Mick, the grave-digger, might seem almost normal in such company, were it not for all the baggage weighing him down, the memories and worries that keep sprouting from the hallowed ground around him.

This is quite a quartet of quaint, curious and cruel folk. They hide or invent things, obsess and quibble, push buttons guaranteed to raise hackles or doubts. And they seem destined to keep repeating their lives, their mistakes.

There’s a pathetic sadness here, which, in the end, moves the play to a different level.

The director of this production, BJ Jones, who heads Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, quotes a fabulous Oscar Wilde line in his note for the Center Stage program book: “The Irish have an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains them throughout temporary periods of joy.” You couldn’t find a better key to the gray matter inside “A Skull in Connemara.”

Jones is reunited here with several colleagues from a 2002 Northlight Theatre staging of the play, including Todd Rosenthal, whose scenic design deftly captures this weird world, right down to real dirt for digging.

The set is dominated by a hutch packed with religious statues, bric-a-brac and what-not. The towering piece of furniture leans at such an awkward angle that it's in danger, like so many things in Connemara, of collapsing.

Although their Irish accents are not entirely persuasive, the cast members create a thoroughly convincing ensemble.

Si Osborne, a veteran of the Northlight production, has a weathered, subtly sad look that makes Mick sympathetic, even when the character turns scary. Just the way he sinks into a chair says a lot; it’s as if Mick is being swallowed up by all the things that haunt him. And the actor achieves something truly touching at the end of the play, when more questions than answers linger.

Jordan J. Brown vibrantly captures the mix of nerdy, needy and nasty in Mairtin. (Brown seems to have drawn some inspiration from a great source — Irish actor Ardal O'Hanlon, who starred so memorably as the daft Dougal in “Father Ted.”)

Barbara Kingsley is terrifically colorful as Maryjohnny, a squinty-eyed biddy who sees plenty, but won’t let that keep her from enjoying one more drink of Mick’s poteen. And Richard Thieriot rounds things off strongly as the almost-on-the-ball Thomas.

With its decidedly original characters and situations, not to mention bone-crushing wit, “A Skull in Connemara” leaves a lasting mark.

Incidentally, by an odd coincidence, "Star Wars" figures in two Baltimore theaters right now. In "Skull," Mairtin recalls when kids stole his "Star Wars" figures -- "It was Han and Luke and some other one they had off me -- Princess Leia! Aye, and them are the three best ones in 'Star Wars.' You can’t play 'Star Wars' without them."

Meanwhile, the real Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher, is across town at the Hippodrome reminiscing about the movie in her one-woman show "Wishful Drinking." What are the odds of that?

"A Skull in Connemara" runs through March 4.

PHOTOS BY RICHARD ANDERSON
Posted by Tim Smith at 5:53 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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