Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Lonesome West

Third Rail Repertory Theatre
May 19, 2006; closes June 17, 2006

Excellent — a play that makes the season worthwhile. Modern Irish absurdity presented with Third Rail’s consistently high level of craftsmanship, a level of professionalism that should be Portland theatre’s baseline, not its bar. Opening-night audience seemed one feckin’ laugh track, though play’s humor and humanity lay beyond lilting punch lines.


Anonymous said...

Incredible show. Definitely at or near the top of my list for 2005-2006 season (along with “Dirty Story” from the fall). Third Rail just gets better and better. Congratulations. A true delight to watch these four actors on stage. How exciting to have a new and upcoming theater company firing on all cylinders right here in Portland.

A special word has to be said for the amazing Tim True, who with one tilt of the eyebrow can transport us from malice to mischief to good-natured piss-taking. His ragged body language, two days beard, and rambling, shambling, loose cannon movement conveyed perfectly the violent, nothing-to-lose recklessness of Coleman.

Many actors deliver more or less the same schtick show after show in whatever character they inhabit. When you go to see them, you pretty much know what their characters are going to be. Not the case with True. I recalled his stunning performance in CoHo’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” a few years ago and was struck by how different the characters of Tyrone and Coleman are. True has impressive range.

That being said, I do not think it takes away at all from Third Rail’s very strong production to raise a few points about McDonagh and this play.

Exciting as this play is, it cannot be compared to McDonagh’s first work,“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”. In Beauty Queen, the tone, plot, language and stagecraft all coil tightly into a masterpiece of suspense. The violence is real and scary in Beauty Queen – it happens for a reason and is not a decoration or random “add-on” to the story. It is at the heart of the story. We see exactly why Maureen kills Mag – indeed we may wish she did it sooner than she does, so hateful and demented is Mag. McDonagh shows us how Mag’s petty interferences in her daughter’s life have warped and stunted Maureen, and we can feel a claustrophobic murder boiling inside the shut-in cottage. The story resonates beyond the location in Galway.

In Lonesome West, the killing is much more jocular and random. What are we to make of a character who kills his father because of a remark about a haircut. Is that “funny” – as in “ha ha funny”? Is it meant to be dark, frivolous - a throwaway ploy? Without connecting some of the bloodletting to real emotions in Lonesome West, McDonagh issues us a get-out-of-jail-free card at the outset of the performance – “Don’t worry – none of what you are about to see is real. Wink wink. Have fun!”

Now if you say, “Yes, that is exactly what this play is supposed to be”, that’s fine, but then for me it goes in the bin with the thousands of other blank “an over the top parody of violence” pieces. “I’m making a comment about mindless violence – you know – by using mindless violence.” Yawn. It comes as no surprise that one of McDonagh’s admitted influences is Quentin Tarrentino – another fan of mindless blood-letting supposedly enlivened by witty dialogue. “It’s killing – but in a NEW and exciting way!” Perhaps history will remember these pieces more as indicators of the culture that produced them rather than for their value as stand-alone authentic works.

When violence becomes the subject of endless aesthetic variations (“But wasn’t it exciting HOW they got killed - heavens!”), that may be a good sign that the original point – whatever it was – has been thoroughly exhausted. McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” is an even better example of this kind of spectacle run amok. Oh, how funny – IRA terrorists gone wild. The real danger here is one of detachment and disengagement. Lest we forget - there IS a real world out there with real issues at stake, waiting to be excavated out from underneath the surface level sarcasm and cynicism that is more and more our daily wallpaper.

It is a fine line between satire and escapism (or mindless entertainment), and I would argue that McDonagh is sitting safely on the sidelines, not taking on real issues. Somewhere there are transition zones between black comedy, farce, and absurd over the top slapstick. Beauty Queen showed he has the power to create real drama, but many of his other works retreat into type and tongue-in-cheek sarcasm – away from real insight. For McDonagh to now be known as the face of new Irish drama is absurd.

The final point I would make is that the world McDonagh retails verges on racial slapstick that may conform more closely to an audience’s stereotypes about ye olde Eire than reality. Ireland today is a very prosperous country where incomes and education levels in many areas make the US look like a third world country. The entire backdrop of McDonagh’s plays – paralyzingly small towns with no opportunity for advancement – does not ring true with the Ireland of today (though obviously there are former times when that was the case). The west coast of Ireland today is a familiar story to our own west coast – loads of zillionaires, drawn to a beautiful setting and a sward of paradise, putting up homes. The good olde days are long gone…here come the Starbucks…

It is therefore somewhat odd to see sausage being made of the drunken priest, the sub human Irish peasant washer woman, the leering youth etc. These subjects feel like a rehash of 19th century stock pablum, and one has to ask why they play so well in London and New York. I am not saying these characters are not funny, only that, again, reverting to type may be grandly entertaining but also can insulate us from reality – the deeper truth we go to the theater to see. Anyone who went to Galway in search of McDonagh’s characters would be sorely disappointed. But the farther you get from the place, the more plausible they may seem.

To circle back - Third Rail’s production is tremendous stuff and does indeed show us how good theatre can be. Sitting in the front row watching these actors rant, roll around on the floor, and (yes) fire their guns makes you give thanks for live theatre. John Steinkamp is also very, very good, as are Michael O’Connell and Stephanie Gaslin. I felt like I had enjoyed a taste of some very good acting and only wondered what they could do with stronger, more authentic material. No doubt we will find out in their 2006-2007 season.

The sky’s the limit for Third Rail…

BA said...

Absolutely go see this show.

Follow Spot said...

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Anonymous said...

Overall, impressive though I did find the fight scenes to be weak. Compare with the scene in Clean where Kiko slams Junior into the kitchen table and Third Rail came up short.

Anonymous said...

The acting was fabulous -- especially True and Steinkamp. Play much funnier than I was expecting. However, I thought the plotting, even in a comparatively novel geographic setting, was a mite formulaic. I wasn't particularly surprised by any of the "significant" plot turns. Third Rail does dependably solid work, enough to make Portland proud. -- Quixel

Anonymous said...

Bravo Third Rail! Congratulations on the three Drammies for this exciting show.

So where's the closing night party??

T. True said...

The closing party is at McFaddens this sunday 6pm. All are invited to celbrate with us!

jamesevanpilato said...

yeah! like our best actor award-winner just said: the closing night party is this sunday the 18th at McFadden's at 6pm... i'm the sound designer/sound board-op for THE LONESOME WEST and i'll be the dj at the party... hope to see you there! - jamesevanpilato