Theater Review: THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Antaeus Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on February 27, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Funny and heartbreaking, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is nothing less than a slalom run of emotional ups and downs and plot twists and turns. Antaeus Theatre’s production doesn’t necessarily hug every curve like Olympians, but the many snow jobbing characters in this 1996 dark comedy still leave an impression. As in most McDonagh plays, it’s the people who know you who can be the most ruthless about your failings and shortcomings — and yet, compassion and caring also emerge from the most unexpected places.

The play takes place in 1934 on the island of Inishmaan, and its conceit is that some of its villagers are in pursuit of taking part in the filming of Robert Flaherty’s classic fictional documentary Man of Aran, the crew of which is shooting at a neighboring island. McDonagh mocks Flaherty’s condescending fiction about simple and rugged Irish folk, but just as paradoxically celebrates the human power to create fiction in the face of harsh and banal reality. Which means there’s a lot of liars, rumor mongers, and storytellers in town.

Sisters Kate (Rhonda Aldrich) and Eileen (Julia Fletcher) have raised Cripple Billy Craven (sympathetic Ian Littleworth) after the mysterious death of his parents, running the grocery whose entire stock seems to be made up of tinned peas and fresh eggs, most of which are more likely to be broken on the head of candy-loving Bartley (Sebastian Fernandez) by Helen (Emily Goss), his sister the slut. There’s Johnnypateenmike (outrageously loveable Stephen Caffrey), who sells gossip in trade for anything he can get, and who is anxiously anticipating the imminent death of his bedridden mother, Mammy (spunky, impish Anne Gee Byrd), whose advanced state of alcoholism would have killed anyone else ages ago, and who, incidentally, drinks because she instinctively knows her son is trying to kill her.

And there’s Babbybobby Bennett (John Bobeck), the man who brings Cripple Billy to the filming when nobody else will take him, and who hides, beneath his gentle exterior, a storehouse of violence. A lively cast of characters, indeed, to be stranded on an island with, particularly when it’s Babbybobby who’s got the only lifeboat.

But for Billy, who has lived there all of his 20 years, Inishmaan is a prison, filled with heartache, loneliness and cruel people who make fun of his physical issues and call him Cripple. (Were it not for Erin Walley’s authentic looking props, John Iacovelli’s huge limestone set could serve as a dungeon.) He’s sick of spending days looking at cows, shuffling his way to Doctor McSharry (John Allee), and having an unrequited crush on Helen. Naturally, everyone pooh-poohs the idea of his going Hollywood, but, of course, it is Cripple Billy (as just “Billy” now) who gets sent off to Hollywood, complete with contract. And, of course again, at just the time when a screening of the finished Man of Aran is shown at the local church, Cripple Billy is dying in a Hollywood hotel. Or is he? But worry not, The Cripple of Inishmaan has its happy ending. Or does it?

It’s rather amazing how most actors shine and sparkle in this double-cast production, an Antaeus institution given that many thespians can be called away for film work at a moment’s notice. As is usually the case, it limits the ensemble’s cohesion — all it takes is one or two meh actors to off-balance a show, which is the case here. It’s an enjoyable watch, with Caffrey, Fletcher, and Littleworth as standouts, but Steven Robman’s direction is ridiculously undermotivated as meandering characters have little to no relationship to their surroundings — Bobbybabby’s clearly fake whittling on his boat, adoptive Aunt Kate’s ambagious stage crossings, and more.

The play is about living with illusions, from Hollywood to families’ stories. And I don’t see this as Irish-bashing by McDonough, as some believe; rather, it’s about how cruel reality can be. Yet while there’s a hopelessness in the air — a feeling all too familiar for today’s have-nots — it doesn’t have the fatalism of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904), also set in Inishmaan. Oh, and McDonagh is funny; very, very funny.

photos by Geoffrey Wade Photography

The Cripple of Inishmaan
(The “Yalla-Mallows” Cast)
Antaeus Theatre Company
Gindler Performing Arts Center
110 East Broadway in Glendale
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Mon at 8
ends on March 11, 2018
for tickets, call 818.506.1983 or visit Antaeus

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