BWW Review: Get a Grip on A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE
A Behanding in Spokane
Written by Martin McDonagh, Directed/Sound Design by Darren Evans; Luke J. Sutherland, Scenic Designer; Maureen Festa, Costume Designer; Eric Jacobsen, Lighting Designer; Rebecca Helgeson, Props Fabricator; James Wilkinson, Stage Manager; Brooke DiGiovanni Evans, Box Office Manager
CAST: Jeff Gill, Carmichael; Greg Maraio, Mervyn; Becca A. Lewis, Marilyn; Tory Bullock, Toby
Performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through October 27 by Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.charlestownworkingtheater.org or www.theatreonfire.org
If you are familiar with the work of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, let me put A Behanding in Spokane in context for you. It is not as violent and bloody as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, nor as unsettling as The Pillowman, but there are unsettling themes and threats of violence. If you are not familiar with McDonagh, rest assured that the play selected by Artistic Director Darren Evans to open the eighth season of Theatre on Fire is a very funny, dark comedy. It will hold you in its grip for the entire one hour and forty-five minutes (sans intermission) that Carmichael and company try to get the better of each other in a bad deal for his missing hand.
Christopher Walken was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play when Behanding premiered on Broadway in 2010, running for 108 performances. Jeff Gill, an IRNE Award-winning actor who is well-known to Theatre on Fire audiences, plays the protagonist Carmichael who has been wandering around in search of his severed left hand for thirty-seven years. Gill makes the character his own with a gravelly voice and constant expression of consternation. His portrayal is enhanced by a blunt cut silver wig and rumpled clothes that give the impression he has been both wandering and sleeping in them for a couple of decades. As he sits around one more unmemorable motel room, his world-weary demeanor hints at his dangerousness. Carmichael is just about out of hope and has nothing to lose if he takes it out on the hapless pair chained to the radiator.
Toby (Tory Bullock) and Marilyn (Becca A. Lewis) are weed dealers attempting to move up in class by claiming to have the long-lost hand to sell to the rightful owner. While Carmichael goes in search of it, he leaves the would-be cons handcuffed and counting down the minutes to their doom. Enter the hotel receptionist Mervyn (Greg Maraio), a long-haired stoner with a death wish who might come to their aid to fulfill his desire to be a hero, or he might leave them to their fate just because he can. This trio of young actors is a lively bunch and nails the quirkiness that McDonagh has written into their characters. Maraio, full of nervous enery, talks excitedly in valley girl-esque rhythms and has a knack for stroking and tossing his long tresses. Lewis uses her flirtatious little girl voice to try to influence Mervyn and win his favor. Bullock represents the brains of their operation (such as it is), but wavers between showing bluster and shedding tears. They may envision themselves as the next Bonnie and Clyde, but bear a stronger resemblance to The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
Scenic Designer Luke J. Sutherland imbues the nondescript room with an aura of existential angst befitting its inhabitant. A single bed, a club chair, and a small nightstand with a lamp and a phone are the only furnishings, and decorations are limited to a dull painting and a beat up wagon wheel on the walls. Carmichael appears to have no personal items and travels with only a heavy satchel (the contents of which offer a nifty surprise) and a small duffel bag to carry the tools of his trade. He is the ultimate loner, but for a long-distance telephone relationship with his elderly mother.
Being a loner seems to be a lifestyle choice for the single-minded Carmichael, whereas Mervyn suffers the solitude of being because he is disturbingly weird. McDonagh gives him a moment in the spotlight to deliver a soliloquy about his monkey fetish and his fantasy of doing something heroic, like disrupting a high school massacre. Maraio's wig adds to his authenticity, but he gets under Mervyn's skin to show how numb he is to the slings and arrows of the violent world he inhabits.
Evans' direction operates on all cylinders, bringing out the humor to relieve the anxiety that permeates much of the play. He also handles sound design (intermittent music, gunshots, and ringing phones), while lighting design is by Eric Jacobsen and Maureen Festa is the costume designer. Props Fabricator Rebecca Helgeson deserves a hand for her contribution, as well (I couldn't help myself!). You might want to bring a seat cushion for the hard wooden chairs, or better yet, become a Theatre on Fire donor and be rewarded with a complementary "donor cushion." With or without a cushion, A Behanding in Spokane is bound to make you squirm.
Photo credit: Theatre on Fire (Tory Bullock, Jeff Gill, Becca A. Lewis)