What I learned. . .

One of my chief memories of directing A Skull in Connemarra is spending opening night flat on my back on the floor of the air-conditioned booth in Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theater, suffering from a mild case of pneumonia.  I don’t think it was any sort of curse brought on by Martin McDonagh’s ghoulish black comedy; it was just a matter of the season (winter – always a challenge in Wisconsin in December and January), my airless apartment at the Plaza Hotel (windows nailed shut against the cold; therefore, little air circulation), and, perhaps a little too much time on the road.  Didn’t really know what was ailing me till I checked out of the Plaza, drove to Des Moines to visit my father and managed to get a doctor’s appointment, a diagnosis, some rest, and the right mega anti-biotics before heading on to Las Vegas, Nevada for Love’s Labour’s Lost at Nevada Conservatory Theatre/UNLV.  No end to the glamour, as I like to say.

The rest of the experience was true delight.  Great material (my first – and so far, only, McDonagh – whose fierce voice continues to thrill me), a wonderful quartet of actors (Joe Hanreddy, Brian Vaughn, Michael Daly, and Laurie Birmingham), and terrific designers (Robin Stapley, Kenton Yeager, and Rosemary Ingham). Plus great support from Jim Guy, Prop Director extraordinaire, whose shop became something of a National Geographic/excavation-display room, as he refined various ‘recipes’ for creating the three full body skeletons and other essential human bones necessary for demolition each performance.  Jim, who is notorious for knowing exactly when you’re going to take a break during rehearsals, showed up every day, right on schedule, with a new sample, a mallet, and goggles, so that he could gleefully demonstrate that day’s exploration.  Took a while to get it right; but get it right he did.

Smashing the bones was a challenge, but so was capturing the dark humor of the playwright.  I don’t think I’ve encountered as wonderful and lengthy a set-up for a joke as the one that culminates with Mairtin exclaiming to his brother, the obsessive, amateur detective-cop, “am I Finnish??!! – or one that evoked a three-waves-of-laughter response from audiences time after time, as much as did that “I can’t believe he went to such lengths to set up and get to that payoff” punchline.  That, plus dialect, darkness, and a liberal sprinkling of “feck this” and “feck that”. . . let’s just say a good time was had by all.

I’ve had wonderful experiences with the Irish. Shaw, Wilde, McDonagh, Marie Jones, and look forward to the next.  The combination of lyricism and mordant wit is savory and unbeatable; the characters memorable; and the challenges for directors, actors, designers, and audiences rewarding – in sickness and in health!

A Skull In Connemara

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre

January, 2002

Joseph Hanreddy, Brian Vaughn,  Laurie Birmingham

“Gallows humor is as Irish as Guinness and soda bread.  That delicious Irish wit is like dark chocolate – rich and bittersweet.

“Irish comedy and drama often layer the humor with a sentimental lyricism that sings for theater-goers.  These combined ingredients yield a theatrical style many of us find irresistible.

“Young Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh shamelessly trades on our expectations and the sweetness of that style by going against the grain with his smack-us-in-the-face work.  He is a playwright with an edge, and the edge is serrated.  One guesses that McDonagh is not satisfied is he doesn’t make theater-goers gasp, and they do.

“Milwaukee Repertory Theater audiences received their first taste of McDonagh two years sago with a production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane [which is] part of a trilogy, and Sunday night the Rep opened A Skull in Connemarra, another corner of the Leenane triangle.

“The superbly staged production features exquisite acting from a cast that includes Repertory artistic director Joeseph Hanreddy showing us his impressive performing talent. Hanreddy’s Mick Dowd possesses a slow-burning intensity that gives him a distracted and vaguely menacing persona.  It isn’t until the play’s final moments that we get a strong hint about the intensity’s source.

“In the meantime, the character displays the ability to verbally slice and dice people with cold precision.  Hanreddy makes it chilling.

“Adding pounds and years to her body and attitude, Laurie Birmingham creates a sublime gem with her portrait of Maryjohnny.  Ornery and cantankerous, she expertly handles a traditional Irish theater role with flawless comic timing and careful attention to detail.

“Mairtin is a brainless, untethered goof, and Brian Vaughn inhabits the character with such energetic and loony glee that we can’t help loving him, depite his childish self-centeredness.

“Michael Daly ably handles the more straightforward role of the town cop.

“Scenic designer Robin Stapley should take a bow for two evocative and attractive realistic sets on the Stiemke Theater’s smaller-size stage.”

     Damien Jacques

     Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Appearance vs. Reality.  A clutch of red herring.  A final question mark.  Being able to capitalize on the aura still present in the Stiemke Theater from its former inhabitant, Buried Child, further enhances the Milwaukee Rep’s presentation of Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemarra.”

“McDonagh reaches out to snare his audience’s skulls and give ‘em a whack or two for good measure. . .  Deliberately set on givin’ the audience the willies, with a cast of only four characters, McDonagh casts his net of intrigue as skillfully as a whole roomful of Agatha Christie-like suspects.

“Always keeping his audience just a bit off balance (not too hard a task given the ghoulish, morbid undertaking of graveyard ‘refining’), McDonagh hammers out his plot of doubt lingering over the cause of death for the digger’s wife, Mrs. Dowd.  The husband is obliged to exhume her coffin.  In doing so, he unearths a new mystery.

“Obviously four characters require smashing performances and director Paul Barnes evokes them from his principals, the play’s yin and yang, Joseph Hanreddy and Brian Vaughn.  The former is a taciturn grave digger, the latter a babbling bonehead playing with a shorted deck of mental cards.  The reliable Laurie Birmingham and Michael Daly offer grand (if disturbingly revelatory) support.  Robin Stapley’s interior and exterior set is a director’s dream.

     Robert Richard Jorge

     Shepherd Express

“Milwaukee Repertory Theatre appears to be relishing its venture into the noir genre in Stiemke Theater presentations this season.  First, Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child, now Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemarra, and last up is John Strands’ Lovers and Executioners.

The overall excellence of the Shepherd production puts pressure on what follows to live up to its success.  Under Paul Barnes’ direction, A Skull in Connemarra triumphs.  It appears to be a four-character mystery play that sort of tweaks in spades Agatha Christie’s typical drawing room full of a dozen or so suspects.  Four is more difficult and so there are twists and turns here that would put a rotini pasta to shame.  Yet the clues make perfect sense if you can ignore the red herring thrown across your path.  “Appears” because it’s all a matter of appearance vs. reality with the assistance of gossip and deep denial.

“The first act, set in Dowd’s dwelling, is all blathery exposition.  The facts are interspersed with speculation, inferences, hints, implications, and innuendo.  The action then moves to the graveyard itself.  Here, the excellence of Robin Stapley, Scenic Designer, comes to the fore in creating an unsettling disturbance in the spectator.  It’s all so real and but for the foolish young slacker, Mairtin, might be absolutely ghoulish.  But it is in the graveyard that a shocking discovery is made.  It results in a spiraling set of speculations and revelations that continually keep the spectators in doubt of their own conclusions, even past the final curtain.

“The Rep’s Artistic Director, Joe Hanreddy, makes his second appearance as a performer and provides a textbook example of how to create a character in depth.  . . .  It would require a lot of energy to coax any sociability out of the widower, he is so far withdrawn into himself.  Still waters may run deep but at least they can be refreshing.  There’s no tonic to be found in this oasis of a man.

“The other spout, bubbly Mairtin, on the other hand, can’t be turned off.  Vaughn, in a virtual tour de force, is an example of outstanding character work.”

     Dr. R. R. Jaye