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The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonaugh and The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht – Los Angeles Theater Reviews

 

WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?

 

picture - The Lieutenant of Inishmore - Mark Taper Forum 2010

 

Theater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published July 27, 2010 

 

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

now playing in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum  

through August 8

 

and

 

The Good Woman of Setzuan

Recently played in Los Angeles at the Open Fist Theater

 

Only in Hollywood, you might say: Bertolt Brecht’s prime example of epic theater, The Good Woman Of Setzuan,  has become, for want of a better word, likable, and Martin McDonagh’s savage comedy, The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, has been turned into a crowd-pleasing farce. Has the darkness of both plays been subverted? To one reviewer, at least, the answer is decidedly yes. Does it matter? Well, yes and no.

 

picture - The Good Woman of SetzuanIn a world gone mad and greedy (we’re in the ancient imaginary city of Setzuan, not America), it’s pretty hard to be good and, more significantly, to remain good and still live a good life. Shen Te, a reformed prostitute and the title character of Brecht’s masterpiece, is good when everyone around her is not so good, and, because she gives aid to the gods – who find themselves in Setzuan – when nobody else will, her goodness seems to shine. But Shen Te can be good only because she can – when she turns into her crooked and male alter ego Shui Ta – submit to her own not-so-good tendencies. This whole matter of who is good and who is not good is made transparently clear when, in Brecht’s didactic vision, the world’s corruption is personified by recognizable archetypes, but when the archetypes become, shall we say, less archetypal – when the traits they reveal are neither good nor bad, but, in their own exotic ways, quite human – things go topsy turvy.

 

But the Open Fist Theatre Company production has so much fun, under Charles Otte’s wildly inventive staging, with the gamut of possibilities that exist between good and bad, that, thanks to a game ensemble and a handful of actors who are truly transcendent and costume designs by Christina Wright that carry imagination to glorious new heights, The Good Woman Of Setzuan becomes one of the tastiest entertainments around town. Likeable, yes indeed, but brilliantly likable. How can the true spirit of Brecht not come through ultimately if, at its heart, Brecht is being respected as much as he is being played with?

 

picture - The Good Woman of SetzuanEric Bentley’s translation sounds livelier in this interpretation than it has in other productions; the words may be the same but they glitter not only with hardness but with humor, and Elizabeth Swados’s playfully tinny score sets the tone and the rhythm of the evening. And when the actors run free, switching from one side of their personalities to another with quicksilver swiftness and fluidity, questions of good and bad go spinning like a merry-go-round running off its track. Most memorable is Benny Wills (as Yang Sun, too bitter to really love Shen Te even when she saves him from hanging himself ), who is a special delight, subtly transmuting from attitude to attitude with a sly shift of his eyes or his mouth or his voice, dry and acid one moment, tender the next, always real and always stylized. Almost every bit as good are Lauren Lovett who seems to be having just an ounce more pleasure with Shui Ta than with Shen Te; Jan Munroe, whose shine-in-the-eye businessman is as cajoling as he is tough-minded; Phillip William Brock as a sometimes wily, sometimes befuddled policeman; Katherine Griffith as both a god and a terminally busy Mrs. Mi Tzu.

 

Capitalism and religion, the evils Brecht was forever railing against, don’t reveal themselves as the enemies per se, but rather as pop-ups in a carnival of hypocrisies. But, though Brecht might have pushed for a tougher-minded didacticism, when the results are this spirited, and the light shines like a laser through the Brechtian hell that his own private Setzuan stands in for, one surrenders quite willingly to the joys that are everywhere abundant. And the message comes through. Who knows who is good and who is bad, anyway? Aren’t we being asked, in the end, to make up our

own minds?

 

picture - The Lieutenant of Inishmore - Mark Taper Forum 2010It’s harder to understand what has happened to The Lieutenant Of Inishmore. McDonagh is arguably one of the two or three most singular dramatic voices of the past decade and this play is, if not his best, as emblematic of his oeuvre as any other he has written. It might even be an authentic masterpiece. And yet what one senses here is just the opposite: inauthenticity. The cockeyed twisting of the Irish vernacular – like throwing Synge and O’Casey and a bunch of Barry Fitzgeralds into a sewer and watching them float amid the flotsam and jetsam of their language – is a source of rich laughter in itself. But it doesn’t emanate from the ensemble, as it should, with comic musicality. The emphasis seems to be on the joke that emerges every minute or so in this production rather than on the music which remains, for the most part, locked inside the characters.

 

McDonagh’s Ireland, hatched from inside his gloriously fevered mind rather than taken off a map, is both real and surreal, tragic and comic, historical and crazily ahistorical, moral and amoral, human and, at the same time, besotted with the stupidity of humanity. It is, to be sure, as black a comedy as you can imagine, as stark and as frightening as a bloodbath (which it literally turns into), and as funny as a good comedy ought to be, which is to say very funny. It starts with the death of Wee Thomas, the beloved cat of a sentimental terrorist named Padraic, and what Donny, who has been taking care of the puss for Padraic, is going to have to do to keep the news of Wee Thomas’s death from its master. Padraic, who can brutally rip a drug dealer’s nipples off without flinching, is the sort of guy who weeps at the mere thought of Wee Thomas being sick, so what will he do when he discovers the cat is dead? It would be silly to give away more of the plot, because it so giddily goes from predictability to predictability in the most unpredictable ways; but, before the play comes to an end, it will give us yet another dead cat, a plot and counterplot involving terrorists who want to get rid of Padraic, a love affair between Padraic and a lovely-to-look-at but don’t-rub-her-the-wrong way terrorist-in-the-making named Mairead and, finally, a stage strewn with blood and dead bodies. Well, you can see the riotous possibilities, can’t you? You can also imagine that, behind all these shenanigans, lies a streak of viciousness that would make anyone cower and cringe and look the other way.

 

picture - The Lieutenant of Inishmore - Mark Taper Forum 2010But this production is based on that old burlesque theory: Always leave them laughing. Sure and feckin' begorrah, no play about modern Ireland can keep the night away entirely, and, so, a wee bit of the play’s interior midnight comes through the grim light of day that washes over the proceedings. Still, no stone is left unturned to make sure the play goes from funny to funnier to funniest with nary a cringe or a cower to be seen or felt, or a single moment when your eyes are not glued to the stage, taking in and enjoying every one of its bloody goings-on. Given some of the monstrosities seen or talked about in both this play and in its last production, Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo, one might jump to the nasty conclusion that Mark Taper Forum audiences will, given the opportunity to do so, laugh at anything.

 

picture - The Lieutenant of Inishmore - Mark Taper Forum 2010What is odd is that Wilson Milam, who directed, knows his targets well and aims his arrow for a bull’s eye every time, and he is also the man who so perfectly orchestrated the two finely-tuned New York productions which managed to simultaneously provoke gasps and giggles. The main difference is that everything here is more than a little bit broader. But it also has something to do with the aforementioned inauthenticity this reviewer felt almost at the start. And a good deal of that lies in the casting. These people should be of the earth, filthy and raw, terrifying in their ugliness and yet terrified in their loneliness. Living in a senseless world, they have become senseless. Laughing at them should be a little like laughing at ourselves, like laughing at how ordinary people behave in extraordinary situations. Some of the actors get just the right zing into it – Séan G. Griffin’s panicky Donny, Andrew Connolly’s one-eyed terrorist, Zoe Perry’s swaggering Mairead – but almost everyone else looks too clean, as if they were more interested in auditioning for a film or a television series than getting their hands dirty and their hearts broken in this play and they beg for the laughs rather than let the laughs fall where they may. And, as played by Ms. Perry and Chris Pine – in the central role of Padraic – the lovers cross over from satire to mere cuteness. Cuteness, under any circumstances, is unforgivable in a work of art.

 

With the exception of the interesting sounds that Cricket S. Meyer has come up with, none of the design elements of this production make any purposeful impact. The Lieutenant Of Inishmore has them rolling in the aisles, and this is, after all, a comedy, and, in a desert, who’s going to refuse a nice cold soda? You’ll excuse this reviewer if he was hoping for champagne.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos of The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Craig Schwartz

photos of The Good Woman of Setzuan by Tom Burrruss

 

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