BWW Reviews: CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN an Irresistibly Sublime Black Comedy
A dark Irish domesticity seeps through the monochromatic woodwork of J. Barry Lewis' The Cripple of Inishmaan, a haunting side-splitter that twists Martin McDonagh's plot to and fro with exceptional dexterity. The destitute society Lewis delivers from his cloudy Inishmaan general store is sadistic comedy in high form- laughter during vivid bouts of human frailty, examination of the soul through ceaseless bullying and manipulation, and the titular 'Cripple' Billy. Lewis guides his outstanding technical team around a cast that takes the hilarious McDonagh staple in more human, though more cruel, directions that color Billy's world a shade darker.
Cripple of Inishmaan is the first in McDonagh's incomplete 'Aran Island' Trilogy, set amongst the three isles of the western coast. Here, the Irish playwright details a class-less people, secluded in their privacy. Cripple of Inishmaan gives a brief glimpse at the life of 'Cripple' Billy Claven and the aunts raising him; when Robert J. Flaherty comes to the neighboring island to film Man of Aran, Billy and his neighbors rush to join the Hollywood dream.
It is all too common for audiences, critics, and creative teams to negotiate McDonagh's shows as endlessly complex and layered. Perhaps the best way to look at his works is not as some Irish Tom Stoppard in difficulty, but rather, as simple depictions of human nature. J. Barry Lewis respects this unforgiving portrayal, imbuing each performer with subtle notes of dread behind the repetition.
Adam Petherbridge, playing the titular Billy Claven, makes the physical deformities look painful, makes the jokes razor sharp, and makes the emotional center of Lewis' Cripple. Petherbridge shuffles around, bouncing poignant concepts among his dullard surroundings, all with the utter sincerity and tragedy that a successful production require in Cripple. What sets Petherbridge apart is his clever plotting mind, a silence in the background and behind his eyes that turn even the deformed Billy into a force on the stage.
Those who have seen, or read, Cripple know Kate and Eileen Osbourne, Billy's adoptive aunts, as the show's framing device. Played by Laura Turnbull and Elizabeth Dimon, respectively, the duo is razor sharp and quick as a whip, indulging equal part in gossip and concern. Dimon's budding frustrations are some of the show's funniest moments, while Turnbull's believable decline provides endless schadenfreude.
The strongest performance among this star cast comes wrapped in absurdity- Colin McPhillamy's Johnnypateenmike O'Dougal is the closest audiences will ever get to seeing John Cleese as Falstaff. The boisterous, blustering buffoon gives injections of adrenaline to scenes throughout, in Johnnypateenmike's disdain for brevity- the building tension McPhillamy causes as he slowly prattles away at his news, or his bickerings with his mother (played by the delightfully straight-faced and cruel Harriet Oser) are Lewis' foundation in Cripple's energy and movement.
The McCormick siblings give the most visual foil; Bartley McCormick (Wesley Slade) is a fool who is accidentally insensitive, Helen McCormick (Adelind Horan) is violently, and purposefully, evil. While Slade is equal blend adorable and brutish, Horan's Helen is wondrously pure destruction. In their first scenes together, Slade and Horan seem leagues separated (perhaps for plot reasons not to be spoiled here), but time spent with them shows them to be two parts of a coin. Jim Ballard's Babbybobby Bennett comes afoul of this discovery in his dealings with Horan's Helen, a humorous disgust for her and her bullying nature. Special note to Bennett's Babbybobby is due, taking a major transition from likeable, even fatherly figure, into the second act's dealings, with a picturesque darkness.
What each cast member gives, in different doses, is the savage and twisted evil inherent to all. Audience members are challenged to take any character as morally upright, or even slightly noble, and to see each character turn out to be manipulative, self-concerned, or simply destructive. Nearly every line is challenged, the plot twisting and turning with each twist funnier than the last, but by the rounding out of the second act, Lewis' will have you convinced each character is simply lying or plotting away- even the 2014 Cort Theatre production couldn't balance out this level of disinformation.
The crux of Lewis' production seems to be in his mixture of the creative team with the performers' personalities- the aforementioned monochromatic set, from designer Victor Becker, is smart and transitionary from the general store down to the shores and even across oceans, all while being cleverly silent in the rear. This is a settled project for lighting designer Paul Black, a challenge he overtakes in his selection of warming nuances, ingenious placement of specials, and 'windows'. The wrenching monologue in the second act is giving a setting sun, cinematographic quality as the scene brightens and hearts are wrenched.
A welcome addition to the team is found in Franne Lee, one of the most accomplished living costume designers. The lighting and set seem to call back to the original Sweeney Todd in its woodwork and scenic calling, but her costuming is far distant from any she's done before. On stage, her choices are sharper than Christopher Oram's for the Daniel Radcliffe production. Her outfits, for the most part, function as simple (such as the aunts, and Bartley), but some shine in their color and functionality. Billy Claven seems to wear suitable clothing adapted for his deformities, Babbybobby is somewhere between an enforcer and London dock-worker, but mostly, the breath-taking detailing of Johnnypateenmike's extravagance. The hammed performance is decorated with endless baubles, clashing patterns, and a comically clean hat to contrast the character. The balance across the board is refreshing and vibrant.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is a show deceptively simple to read but monstrous to perform- it isn't a show many communities or houses are quick to add into their repertoire. Thankfully, Palm Beach Dramaworks is rounding out their daring season with a bleak comedy about cruelty in a coolly perfect production that shows the quality Palm Beach has come to expect.
The Cripple of Inishmaan runs from May 17th-June 4th at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.