Monday, November 12, 2012
Theater review: Kitchen Dog Theater’s intense production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane will make you squirm
It's a fine execution of a difficult script.
DALLAS McDonagh: "I walk that line between comedy and cruelty."
"In-yer-face theatre" is a phrase coined by Aleks Sierz to define plays by McDonagh and other playwrights of the 1990s. He defines it as characterized by "its intensity, its deliberate relentlessness, and its ruthless commitment to extremes." Violence and provocative images on the stage also undermine what we might consider traditional stage presentation. While The Beauty Queen may not shock today's audiences as it did those in the mid-1990s, it can still pack quite a wallop, and Kitchen Dog's production shows us why. (Any play where priests punching kids, men cutting the ears off dogs and the relative merits of various "biscuits" are discussed in the same breath can't be all bad!)
McDonagh's more recent work has been movie scripts including the just released Seven Psychopaths and, one of my personal favorites, In Bruges, among others. He admits, in fact, that his plays have been influenced by film, especially those of Scorsese, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Tarantino. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, first in the "Leenane Trilogy," won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the Drama League Award for Best Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award Best Broadway Play and was nominated for the Drama Critics' Circle Award and Tony Award for Best Play, going on to win additional awards.
When we walk into the space, we are presented with a set that could be used to illustrate "kitchen sink realism," a term derived from an early 1950s expressionist painting by John Bratby containing an image of a kitchen sink. Originating in the UK, the term soon came to be applied to the new wave of art, theater, novels, etc, dealing with the working class, domestic scenes and stress on the banality of life. Clare Floyd DeVries' scenic installation immediately places us in the squalor of a very particular family in Leenane, a small town in Connemara, County Galway in 1989 Ireland. Every texture, every color choice, every angle, the broken window covered in plastic, the shabby furniture and the tons of props – set dressing – filling the stage, inform us of the environment where we are to spend the next two hours. We know who these people are from the place they live and the things they have chosen with which to surround themselves. DeVries and Jen Gilson-Gilliam as props designer, create a brilliant, brilliant piece of art. At intermission, you will find people studying all the "stuff" all over the set and remarking to each other over what they have discovered. This is an award winner!
Into this space come the characters to inhabit it. And inhabit it they do. They feel at home and you can just tell that the detritus surrounding them has fallen into place as pieces of their lives they have left behind. They inhabit it but don't see it anymore. The actors use the space as they would their own, and for them, for the time we spend together, this IS their home. Quite an accomplishment.
As Maureen Folan, a 40-year-old spinster who takes care of a mother who is selfish and manipulative, Karen Parrish comes on stage carrying years of baggage reflected not only in her face, but in her very body. We know who this woman is before she speaks. Everything we come to learn about her as the story unfolds, we see illustrated by this fine actress. As each new fact about her life and her relationship with her mother is revealed, we say "Yes, I see that in her. That's the source of the pain I saw earlier." Her frustration with her mother, her resentful obligation, her grasping at the last chance of some escape and happiness, we believe without hesitation. Parrish has a wonderfully expressive face that she uses to marvelous effect and you never catch her "acting." Her breakdown at the end of the play is shattering.
Nancy Sherrard plays the mother, Mag Folan, a role that could put many an actress through rigors trying to figure out how far to take this character. She's pitiful, yes, but also mean and conniving and makes very deliberate and awful choices to keep her daughter with her. There are lots of layers to this woman, and trying to come up with a back-story for her must have kept Sherrard up late many an evening! Although perhaps more moments of visible vindictiveness from this monstrous mother would give Parrish more to play against, physically Sherrard inhabits Mag Folan very well. She sits in her rocking chair swaddled in layers and shawls rather like a spider in the middle of her web. She watches everything, only moving when it suits her purpose. The posture, the hair, the scalded hand, all comes together in a characterization that is spot-on.
Pato Dooley, the most sympathetic of the characters, is brought to life by Scott Latham. He is vulnerable and hopeful, trying hard to escape the life he lives. He provides us with the few tender moments there are in the show and the hope that he can heal Maureen's wounds.
His long monologue that opens the second act, as he recites the letter he is writing to Maureen, is exceedingly well done and effective. It makes us root for him and his relationship and hope for the best. Physically unimposing, nevertheless he presents the real man, not the idealized hero, who just might be what Maureen needs.
Drew Wall is Ray Dooley, Pato's younger brother, who delivers lots of the plays exposition. That he manages to do this while still engaging us with the restless, maybe unthinkingly dangerous young man he is presenting is a tribute to Wall's talent. Occasionally we are aware of the actor's technique, but it really doesn't matter because he is so entertaining. This is a fully realized and stage-taking characterization.
Rain outside the window, running water, cooking and eating on stage, the set filled with dozens of things that tell us of the lives lived in this space like the pictures of the Kennedys and the Blessed Virgin all help to create the realism this play demands. The subtle but appropriate lighting by Aaron Johansen and the just-right sound and music from John M. Flores, also add to the atmosphere for this strange and engrossing story.
The costumes by Jen J. Madison tell us worlds about the characters. Each choice reveals a detail that shows us a piece of the life these people live. Worn, dirty and used, these are clothes, not costumes. Great work! My only question is about the black dress Parrish wears. While I recognize that it needs to be extreme to some extent, the outrageous sleeves were a distraction for me. It's a lovely dress, but seems almost too much for Maureen.
Also helping to fill this "kitchen sink" is the work done by dialect coach Sally Nystuen-Vahle resulting in authentic-sounding Irish accents. So authentic, in fact, that I had difficulty understanding much of what was said. As my ear became more attuned, I began to pick up more, but the accents are thick, and that mixed with the dialect and peculiar – to our ears – syntax, can present some problems.
A glossary in the program of words and slang unfamiliar to most Americans would also be helpful. I actually made a trip to the Central Branch of the Dallas Public Library to get a copy of the script so that I could pick up on what I had missed. It was a big help!
It is obvious that Cameron Cobb, the director, has studied not only the script, but the whole world of the time and place where the story unfolds. He creates for us this very palpable place that can be painful to inhabit but is never boring or expected. This is not an easy script and Cobb guides his actors in making choices that illuminate the themes of isolation, escapism and violence. His staging of the shocking scene between mother and daughter toward the end of the play works so well that many of us in the audience found ourselves wincing and drawing back from the action. Though we never feel the actors are rushing, the pacing never lags and the moments they take have been earned.
The play may leave the audience with many questions about truth and illusion and the roles we all play with each other – whether forced or chosen. It can also present questions about social structures and the part they and genetics and nurturing have in our lives. The Beauty Queen of Leenane can be melodramatic at times and is often filled with portent and foreshadowing. Every set-up pays off and if a prop is featured in one scene, you can be sure it will pay off in another. The character's actions, the repetition of lines and images put before us early, come dramatically home to roost later, all building to the inevitable climax.
McDonagh indeed walks the line between comedy and cruelty and in Kitchen Dog's production; both are presented equally and well.
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