BWW Review: Jobsite Theater Presents Martin McDonagh's Quirky, Darkly Funny A SKULL IN CONNEMARA at the Shimberg
I love all things quirky. So imagine how much I would love a show that is a witty, dark, humorous look at death and that includes characters so peculiar that they are obsessed with 70's detective shows and wind up smashing human skulls to smithereens with mallets. Welcome to the world of Martin McDonagh's A SKULL IN CONNEMARA, the middle play of a trilogy that includes Beauty Queen of Leenane and Lonesome West. (The title comes from Lucky's monologue in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.) If A SKULL IN CONNEMARA is not quite up to the excellence of McDonagh's other works, then that does not detract from the excellence and pitch-perfect, pitch-black hilarity of Jobsite Theater's production, playing through April 9th at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The show also includes the area premiere of a major new talent who hopefully will thrill audiences for a long time with his unique brand of idiosyncratic, physical humor. More on that later.
Set in County Galway, Ireland, not far from where John Ford's The Quiet Man was filmed, A SKULL IN CONNEMARA is actually a mystery of sorts. Every year, gravedigger Mick Dowd is assigned to move the locations of the human remains in a local cemetery to make room for the newly dead. But this year is different, because one of the remains he must exhume belongs to none other than his wife, who died years earlier under mysterious circumstances. The rumor is that Mick killed his wife by bashing in her skull and then staging it as drunk driving accident; but what really happened?
Brian Shea, who plays Mick, is always a joy to watch onstage, filling his roles with robust humor and awkward yawps; but his role here seems more heavy-handed than necessary, without the much-needed levels to make us feel more of his plight. He's certainly funny and at times poignant, and yes, his accent works for the most part, but it all seemed to be one long moan and groan to me.
Brandon Mauro plays the teenage Mairtin Hanlon, who helps Mick with the exhumation, and the actor is a fresh face to our local theatre audiences. His Irish accent may be all over the place and far from convincing, but he makes up for that deficit with an endearing character who possesses great gusto and humor. Mauro's physicality and timing know no bounds, and there is one scene where he uses skulls as pretend testicles and breasts that will not be forgotten. (We keep wondering about the actual living person whose remains are being used so indiscreetly by the young Mairtin.) Mauro goes all in in his portrayal of the energetic, wide-eyed, child-like character; he jolts the stage with incredible energy every time he enters, and in the last scene, he resembles a frenetic Massive Head Wound Harry. He's a major find who has appeared in various TV shows and some productions in Pasco (which I have had the pleasure to see), but he makes his professional Tampa stage debut here and it's thrilling to watch. Keep your eyes on this talented young man.
Broadway veteran Diana Rogers is quite good in her role as the local gossip, MaryJohnny Rafferty, but I kept wondering what the part was doing in the show. Then I realized that she alone has perhaps actually cracked the secret to the mystery of Mick's wife, in some off way winding up like a quirky Irish Miss Marple. She has zeroed in on the truth that has been just rumors for years. And Rogers has no peer when it comes to actively listening to others onstage; she's always in the moment, always reacting, always a part of the scene even when she has no lines without stealing focus from her fellow actors.
As the police officer, Thomas Hanlon, David M. Jenkins, who is also the Producing Artistic Director of Jobsite Theater, completes McDonagh's trilogy by playing different characters in all three shows (he was Ray Dooley in Beauty Queen of Leenane and Coleman Connor in Lonesome West). Here he gives the best performance of this production. All acting students should watch how he ingeniously uses props as extensions of his character, whether lighting a cigarette or catching his breath with an inhaler. And his police officer is full of surprises; we never know quite what he's going to do or say next, which is always a great indication of extraordinary work.
Director Paul Potenza gets the most out of his talented cast, guiding them to an overall strong production. Once again, Brian M. Smallheer's set is extremely clever, where the walls of the house resemble giant headstones and then open up to a cemetery with actual dirt being dug. Ryan E. Finzelber's lighting is appropriate, never ostentatious, as are Katrina Stevenson's costumes. (Great blood make up on Mairtin in the final scene, by the way.) And the choice of musical selections in the production, including works by Laura Marling, Neko Case, and Abigail Washburn, are spot on.
The graveyard skulls, designed and sculpted by local artist and actor Spencer Meyers, work sensationally well. If you are seated too near the stage, then you may be hit Gallagher-style by skull fragments after intermission, because these noggins take a pounding and cranial debris fly through the air (almost hitting unsuspecting audience members). It's a hoot.
Before the show finds its stride and the audience is whisked away in McDonagh's land of quirky dialogue and dark humor, the show takes awhile to dive into, mainly due to our getting used to the dialects and terminology. Thankfully, Jobsite comes to the rescue with a glossary of Irish lingo in the program. So if you have trouble understanding the meanings of "eejit," "skitter," or "fecking," then this will surely help.
A SKULL IN CONNEMARA plays at the Shimberg at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts until April 9th. For more information, please visit https://www.jobsitetheater.org/