Saturday 4 November 2017

Lonesome West is killer good satirical stuff

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Two middle-age west Ireland brothers are trapped living together in Dad's farmhouse in Leenane. They are returning from Dad's funeral with the local priest in tow. In short order we learn that their father has in fact not been killed accidentally when elder son trips with the family shotgun. No, dad was executed in the farmhouse kitchen after he snarks that his son's hair looks like it was combed by a drunken child. Younger brother colludes in the accidental-shooting fake news story in exchange for extorting from him his half-share of Dad's inheritance. There are only two options here : the soap opera All My Children on crack cocaine -or- slapstick sardonic parody. Well, yes!

How it's all put together : Brit / Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was considered the scaramouch of live theatre in the mid-90's when he exploded onto the London stage. His career launched with a trilogy based in Leenane, Ireland (near Galway). Lonesome West is the third and final piece in the tryptich that in each case finds high-strung overwrought hyper-magnified family members battling with one another. Whether it's words or fists or knives or shotguns, they assault one another endlessly for no higher purpose than to be one-up. If beyond raw fear we have three fundamental emotions -- mad, sad, glad -- this is mad writ large. Its cognitive coverup is the word "anger" : that's the term we use to excuse how we choose to behave.

Older bro Coleman (Kenton Klassen) loves to torment and fisticuff with Valene (John Voth) in the riotous send-up of contemporary Irish rural life in Lonesome West now in its final week at Pacific Theatre.
In this chapter the dynamic tension involves the Catholic church and its paradoxical values : specifically, murder can be excused by God through confession and sought-for-forgiveness; for its part when there's a suicide, God condemns the killer to eternal damnation automatically. But that theme takes a back seat for certain to all the profane antics of the centrepiece characters, brothers Coleman (Kenton Klassen) and Valene Connor (John Voth). 

For contrast with them is a young priest recently assigned to the parish, Father Roderick Welsh (Sebastien Archibald) whom they forever call "Walsh" from sheer stubborn stupidity : the silly name-game provides countless comic moments throughout. Joining in is a young lady named Mary Kelleher (Paige Louter) whose charming Irish nickname is "Girleen", meaning "little girl". She's her bootlegger Dad's delivery gal of poteen, a back-40 Irish whisky served up in pint flagons. She's got a wee crush on Fr. Welsh, while he suffers from constant doubt about his faith and its tenets from the fact his parish seems to be the murder \ suicide capital of Europe. "Seems God has no jurisdiction in this town," he moans. He mainlines poteen to soothe his troubled soul and wails "I'd have to murder half me feckin' relatives to live here!"

What the show brings to the stage : McDonagh achieves his purposes admirably : he offends true believers and safe-space-seekers alike. The feckin' eff-word infects every phrase and clause and sentence and exclamation. (And unlike most Vancouver players, this crew to a person gives it its throwaway use as an adjective, no undue juvenile emphasis in the least : Hurrah!) If it isn't Valene's fecking McCoy's crisps he and Coleman fight over, it's the new orange stove Val bought for 300 pounds plus his collection of dozens of mantle-size Catholic figurines. These he bets will hedge any throw of the dice with God for a spot in Heaven. The time is the mid-80's, and bandwidth is in no danger of invading Leenane any time soon : the brothers get inspiration from t.v.'s Hill Street Blues -- it's their main connect to the world outside their hardscrabble patch that is less pasture than prison.

The show on surface is Fr. Welsh's attempt to get the warring Connor brethren to reconcile their decades of built-up grievances and associated scar tissue. Sarcasm is their preferred method of chatting when they aren't in actual fisticuffs or raising weapons at one another : "Your sex appeal wouldn't bring the phlegm out of a dead frog!" Val taunts Coleman who has claimed the teen Girleen rubbed his private parts and gave him free hooch. "You're just a virgin fecking gay boy!" Coleman flips back. 

No question, this is a brand of rural Eire that's nowhere identifiable on Trip Advisor, Yelp or Airbnb sites. It has none of the charm of the Irish Rovers chumminess we for decades have associated with the place. Which is precisely why, of course, playwright McDonagh was persona non grata among the liberal London intelligentsia. For their part, the homegrown Galway folk roar'd their butts off according to writer Sean O'Hagan that he reported in his Guardian interviews with McDonagh. Today's locals weren't buying the bucolic blighted cheery peasantry doing jigs and singing gustily while flailing guitars and mandolins. They saw winks of truth from McDonagh and guffawed mightily in their Thanks be!

Production values that shine through : Director Evan Frayne has done a positively inspired job with this cast. The first word I wrote down when the dialogue sprung off the alley-stage floor was Cadence! Mr. Frayne coached his team perfectly and precisely in that respect -- words tumble out of the characters' mouths and trip over one another exactly as life plays out at a typical kitchen table.

Costumes by Kaitlin Williams were completely appropriate to the times and circumstances. And for its part the playlist background music selected by Matthew Macdonald-Bain & Curtis Tweedie ranged from classic Irish folk charts to Shayne McGowan doing "That Woman Got Me Drinking" to Patrick Fitzgerald's punk anthem "Safety Pin In My Heart" to the closer "Alternative Ulster" by Stiff Little Fingers -- all clever-&-fun stuff crisply chosen. Sandy Margaret's functional farmhouse lit by Phil Miguel worked well indeed -- the orange stove was a smokin' good bit of stage property.

Acting pin-spots : As the Dysfunction Brothers, Klassen and Voth were exceptional : terrific Irish brogues, wild crescendos and trills of dialogue with a few mellow almost sotte voce moments. Their protracted "I'm sorry" scenes are hilarity beyond words and worth the price of admission by themselves. They're sorry for just about everything except killing Dad -- and in the end they're just about in the same farrago of frailty and fault-finding that kick-started the action. 

I gotta confess -- one tiny tear from this garrulous goofy script when Sebastien Archibald delivered his heartfelt feckin' soliloquy. From centre stage he recited in low-rheostat light the letter he wrote to the brothers pleading for their reconciliation just before he left town for good. As Girleen Paige Louter -- Ireland trained in theatre -- was a perfect mix of teen teaser tough and soft sentimental wannabe girl friend. In all, one of the best-knit casts I've seen in the past year (praise I also heaped on Happy Place last month). How lucky I am to have been so engaged by each person in this taut troupe of talent.

Who gonna like : This is Euro-Christian stuff writ large. Analogous to observations about the ever-so-Yankee script Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson I made a couple days back, if you don't know much about Ireland or Catholicism and/or the Irish Rovers' sentimental take on their red-hair green-eye white skin homeland, much of what is being bandied about by Fr. Welsh, the brothers and Girleen probably wouldn't resonate much. Certainly most of the script's raw biting humour would likely fall flat on its arse.

But to the Pacific Theatre house this afternoon the entire proceeding was pure hoot & wincing hilarity from the get-go. Reason being that no-one on stage -- or in the audience -- was guilty for even a nanosecond of taking themselves or the cussing or the violence or the ruminations on what the Vatican might stand for in real life seriously. Neither tittle nor jot of sermonizing preachment in this piece (though some morality considerations maybe to kick about in a zen moment). 

The fun comes down to the fact that life's contradictions and ironies and paradoxes are its spice, after all. This is a tight tight show not to be missed now in its final week.

Particulars : Written by Martin McDonagh.  Produced by Cave Canem in association with Pacific Theatre.  At the Pacific Theatre stage in the Chalmers church basement, 12th & Hemlock. On until November 11th.  Tickets and schedule information via or by phone @ 604.731.5518.  Run-time 120 minutes including a 15-minute intermission 45 minutes into the piece.

Production team :  Director Evan Frayne.  Set Designer Sandy Margaret.  Lighting Designer Phil Miguel.  Sound Designers Matthew Macdonald-Bain-&-Curtis Tweedie.  Costume Designer Kaitlin Williams.  Stage Manager Shelby Bushell.  Assistant Stage Manager Madelaine Walker.  Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Dialect Coach Adam Henderson.

Performers :  Sebastien Archibald (Father Welsh).  Kenton Klassen (Coleman Connor).  Paige Louter (Girleen Kelleher).  John Both (Valene Connor).


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