BWW Review: BY THE BOG OF CASS is a Tale of Irish Angst on Stage at Ensemble
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
As "By the Bog of Cats" opens, "we see Hester, dragging a dead black swan across the snow and ice at the Bog of Cats. The Ghost Fancier has come to collect her but realizes that he is early as Hester is still alive. The Ghost Fancier exits and says that he will return at a later time." And, after an enveloping several hours, he returns. By then, mystical and mythical elements, ghosts, curses, the role of motherhood, abandonment, betrayal and ethnic prejudice, and death have been revealed.
Ensemble Theater has chosen to start this, its 40thseason, with Mariana Carr's play, "By the Bog of Cats," which is loosely based on Greek myth and Euripides's tragic play, "Medea."
Carr is generally recognized as being the greatest living Irish playwright.
In "Medea," the female anti-hero, who has been cast aside by her husband, Jason, for a younger woman, seeks revenge. To get back at him, she kills their two sons and his new bride, leaving Jason bereft.
Though the ending is quite different, there are "Medea" parallels in Carr's script. But the writing and performance elements are pure Irish, especially as it takes on the themes of displacement and disposition, elements not present in Greece of old, or that of its tales.
The play, which takes place in the Bog of Cats, a bleak, foreboding and frozen rural landscape in the Irish midlands, touches on Irish myth, but adds the well-known characteristics of Irish alcoholism, depression, greed and the outcome of living in a land of constant rain, clouds, gloom and doom.
"By the Bog of Cats" is as much a character-study as it is a plot-driven script.
Hester Swaineis a forty-year-old woman who has lived on the bog her entire life. When she was seven years old, her mother, Josie, abandoned her. Hester has been waiting there for her mother ever since.
Hester has a daughter, Josie, with Carthage Kilbride, a much younger man. She is very resentful that Carthage has left her to marry Caroline, the daughter of wealthy landowner, Xavier Cassidy, so that he can inherit the Cassidy farm.
During their relationship, Hester encouraged Carthage to have ambitions beyond his social class as a laborer's son, even giving Carthage the money to buy his first land.
Josie is the same age that Hester was when her mother left her. The girl is caring and loving. She fore-shadow's the horrific conclusion to the play by singing sad songs her mother has taught her.
Carthage's mother looks down on Hester because Hester belongs to the "tinker class," people, who, much like European gypsys, wander in search of odd jobs to make money, by using trickery and sexual favors. Mrs. Kilbride, a self-centered, greedy person, constantly focuses on issues of social class and money and calls her granddaughter a "little bastard" because she was born out of wedlock.
Xavier Cassidy is a wealthy landowner and father of Caroline, who "stole" Carthage from Hester. In order to ensure his daughter's happiness, and to rid himself of the guilt of having been responsible for driving off Hester's mother, who he used for sexual pleasure, is determined to also rid the bog of Hester.
The cast is solid.
Multi-Cleveland Critics Circle and Broadwayworld award winner, Derdriu Ring, gives another accolade worthy performance as Hester. Ring, who was born in Ireland, and trained at The Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, personally knows the ways of the Irish. She doesn't have to portray Irish angst; she lives it on-stage. Her accent and realistic character development add a special quality to the production.
Though he can't reach Ring's levels, Daniel Telford gives a very credible performance as Carthage.
Julia Kolibab is properly repugnant as Mrs. Kilbride. She gives the kind of performance that encourages an audience to "boo" her character in the curtain call, while cheering the portrayal.
The fragmentary set and lighting, does little to really take us to the bog. The significance of the up-stage knotted cloth streams seems unclear.
Celeste Cosentino nicely paces the work, tutoring the cast well on keeping the characters real, even in the fantasy scenes.
Capsule judgment: Much in the tradition of Brian Friel and James Joyce, "By the Bog of Cats" is one of those Irish angst plays that shares the customs and folkways of the Emerald Isle. The Ensemble production is nicely conceived, with a master class in performance skills by Derdriu Ring.
"By the Bog of Cats" runs through September 29, 2019 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2. Ensemble is housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights. For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org