The Lieutenant of Inishmore
by John Stoltenberg
Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts.
Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite living playwrights, and I’ve loved his black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore every time I’ve seen it. So for me the Constellation Theatre Company production just opened was a total pleasure: savagely funny writing, punchy performances, eye-popping effects, high-tension pacing, and a gala of gore.
OK, that last part about the gore might not be to everyone’s taste. Sensitive to the point, Matthew R. Wilson, who has directed The Lieutenant of Inishmore with pitch-perfect panache—he nails it—expends a hand-wringing program note explaining why this really is a Constellation play even though it’s not the company’s typically beautiful-to-behold fare.
Well, the blunt fact is, Inishmore is not pretty as a picture at all. It’s one of the most balls-out send-ups of macho violence, militarism, ethno-nationalism, and sheer dickwittery to be found on the English-speaking stage. And all the macabre torture, gunfire, slasher-style bloodshed, and dismemberment serves a hilariously higher satyric purpose. It’s Monty Python meets Grand Guignol meets Dr. Strangelove. Which you probably have to see to believe.
McDonagh’s story takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, eight of its nine scenes on the island of Inishmore. The wacky plot is set in motion when Davey (a nimble Chris Dinolfo), who wears long hair and rides a girl’s pink bike, finds a dead black cat on the road. He takes the corpse to Donny (a gruff Mark Lee Adams), who has been taking care of a black cat belonging to Padraic, his wild-eyed militant son who has been away blowing up chip shops. Donny and Davey are instantly terrified about what the terrorist Padraic would do if he found out his cat is dead. Turns out Padraic, whom we first meet torturing a drug dealer (an acrobatic Matthew Ward hung upside down), adores his pussycat. McDonaugh’s script plays with the character’s contradictions to rich comedic effect, and Thomas Keegan brings an enjoyable range to the role as he swings between swaggering renegade and cat-loving softie.
Among the other militant malcontents we meet are James (Matthew Ward), Christy (Daniel Flint), Brendan (Joseph Carlson), and Joey (Chris Stinson). They are by turns bumbling and barbarous, a cadre of killer Keystone Cops. McDonagh takes dead aim at the deranged boy-gang mentality that drives their danger, and the jokes fly furiously, as hilarious as they are harrowing.
The sole female role in the play is 16-year-old Malread, the tomboy-tough sister of gentle Davey. The brilliance of Malread’s character arc did not really hit me until seeing this Constellation production. Malread (played by a spunky Megan Dominy) is a tagalong wannabe militant, longing to belong to a badass boys’ club that doesn’t want her, also trying to spark a romance with her hotblooded hero Padraic, to whom she’s a flat-chested twerp. It would be a spoiler to give away how Malread ends up, and what she alone comes to realize after all the mayhem, but wait for it. Dominy’s delivery of that recognition is soft-spoken but trenchant.
Scenic Designer A. J. Guban has devised a handsome and versatile set that changes scenes during swift blackouts without losing a beat. Sound Designer Neil McFadden has propelled the pace with music tracks between scenes ranging from disco to Sinéad O’Connor. All the manic mano a mano has been staged handily by Co-Fight Directors Wilson and Casey Kaleba. And Blood and Effects Designer Kaleba has come up with a slaughterhouse/funhouse full of indelible imagery.
That violence is senseless is the sort of hollow truism that sounds good but always seems to stay in some ethereal dimension along with wishes and dreams. The genius of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is how it puts that senselessness front and center and in yer face, in the form of over-the-top black comedy. The result is an improbable parable. And a thrilling night of theater.
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.