What if, in the middle of A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim got beat down by a gang of London ruffians, or if at the end, Scrooge revealed a collection of severed human heads in his basement, including that of his beloved Belle?
Playwright Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, plus films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) often plays with shocking images, twists, and revelations in his plays. Yet his two decidedly non-holiday shows now in local productions, The Cripple of Inishmaan and A Behanding in Spokane, prove that the playwright is about more than flash. Both plays have plenty to say about relationships and making a go at life amid dire circumstances. Both also delve deeply into memories and the lies we tell each other — and ourselves — to stay sane.
The Cripple of Inishmaan takes place on an isolated Aran Island in 1934. The cripple in question is Billy, a young man who has taken insults from the rest of the villagers his entire life. His escape comes from an unexpected source, the filming of docudrama A Man of Aran on a nearby island. Events take Billy far from home and leave the hardscrabble villagers behind.
The Cripple of InishmaanNimbus Theater1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis612.548.1380; through Dec. 16
A Behanding in SpokaneGremlin Theatre2400 University Ave., St. Paul888.718.4253; through Dec. 16
McDonagh rejects warm Irish blarney for something quite a bit darker, and certainly more in tune with human nature. These characters are trapped in a nightmare of endless minor gossip about their neighbors and tiny tidbits from the mainland. That primarily comes from Johnnypateenmike, the village gossip who waits at doors and behind every corner to hear any secret that exists. (He's also trying to get his 90-year-old mother to drink herself to death, with no success so far.)
The play's final scenes uncover layers about Billy's origins and the deaths of his parents, but we're never sure if we've arrived at the truth. Instead, it seems that the continual spinning of the stories, from Johnny or Billy's "aunts" or his two young friends, is the only thing they have to keep from going completely mad.
Director Kari Hammer and the nine-actor cast make the most of the ever-shifting narrative, building characters that are funny, tragic, and horrifying — sometimes all at once. The cast is led by Andrew Newman as Billy, who proves himself to be a young actor worth watching, and also includes Kate Adducci (as the violent and egg-obsessed Helen), Adam Scarpello (as the seemingly sane Babbybobby), and Mark Groberski as gossip Johnnypateenmike.
For A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh moves the action to the United States with somewhat mixed results. The playwright's intense storytelling fits perfectly here, but his ear for language isn't nearly as strong as in his Irish plays. What does work is the often brutal unveiling of the characters, starting with main madman Carmichael (David Tufford), who is in search of the hand he lost a quarter-century before.
Those around him aren't in much better shape. As Mervyn, Luverne Seifert dons a vest a couple of sizes too small and produces a Norman-Bates-in-training character. When drug-dealing layabout Toby (Brian J. Evans) is the voice of reason, you know you've landed in a mad world.
Seifert is handed the best character here, and he makes the most of it, either via his interactions with the other players or during a wonderful monologue midway through in which the details of his life — including the days when he would go to the zoo drunk and hang out by the primate cages — come tumbling out in a flurry of memories.
Director Matt Sciple and company build quite a bit of momentum during the early part of the play that holds them in good stead as the action gets stranger and stranger. By the end, McDonagh strips the story down to something quite similar to The Cripple of Inishmaan, with characters who tell lies to themselves so they can get up each morning and go about life.