If you look out the window long enough, eventually youll spot a flying pig; and even on the non-musical stage, it is sometimes possible to make a pile of money. Submitted for your approval: an Irish playwright named Martin McDonagh, who has come out of nowhere at a preposterously young age to become the hottest property in the theater. Everything hes written since his debut in 1996 has been a smash, with critics as well as with audiences.
And how many shows are we talking about? Five, six? Its hard to keep track out here in the provinces, because McDonagh is amazingly prolific and because we provincials have never before had the opportunity to see his stuff. In order to maximize his earning power (which no one who loves the theater should begrudge him, the bastard), his agents have kept a tight rein on productions of his scripts, restricting them almost exclusively to the great metropolises. Now, finally, the money men have decided that its time to start releasing McDonagh to regional theaters.
The first play to be thus released is his maiden venture, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (pronounced "leh-NAN"). Based on the enthusiasm that has greeted it, the business plan seems to be working"Beauty Queen" will be the most frequently produced show in the United States in the year 2000. One might have expected McDonaghs Twin Cities debut to occur at the Guthrie, with its authentically Irish artistic director, Joe Dowling. Instead the coup has been scored by one of our best small theater companies, Eye of the Storm.
My verdict, for what its worth, is that you should believe the hype. On the evidence of this show, McDonagh is a spectacularly talented writergrimly funny in the manner of the best Irish humorists, with an extraordinary feel for dramatic structure.
"Beauty Queen" falls into a familiar genre that might be called Irish Squalor, in which much of the interest is supplied by the miserable circumstances in which the characters live and by the self-destructive behaviors that help to perpetuate those circumstances. For outstanding contemporary examples of Irish Squalor, you need look no farther than Angelas Ashes and its various knockoffs; but the pedigree can be traced from Sean OCasey through Flann OBrien, Samuel Beckett, and James T. Farrells Studs Lonigan novels. The other genre in force here is the Theater of the Dysfunctional Family, originated by Ibsen and Strindberg and perfected by Eugene ONeill (an Irish-American, come to think of it).
The play is set in the 1960s, and the set-up goes like this: Mag Folan shares a little house in a godforsaken little Irish town with her adult daughter, Maureen. Mag is one of the great comic monsters of the stagequerulous and senescent, yet with hidden reserves of malicious intelligence and energy. Her only goal in life is to keep her daughter waiting on her hand and foot. Maureen is what you would expect Mags daughter to be. Her sole reliable source of pleasure is to torment and humiliate the mother who lives to torment and humiliate her.
This situation is destabilized by the appearance of Pato Dooley, a man of roughly Maureens age, returning to the auld sod on a brief visit from England, where he has gone to find work. Romance ensues, and Maureen sees a chance to exchange her old, wretched life for a new, happy one; Mag, of course, sees matters differently.
The plot unfolds with the inevitability of tragedy. And then it stumbles, right at the end. The whiz-bang trick-the-audience finale derives from an aesthetic more befitting the movies than the theater; the final discoveries seem somewhat false, out of keeping with what went before. Up to that point, however, "Beauty Queen" is just about as satisfying as a script can be.
Eye of the Storms production rises fully to the level of the writing. The actors work so well together that director Casey Stangl must be given credit for the invisibility of her decisions. Im guessing that Claudia Wilkens conceived Mags face as a mask from behind which her mind fitfully peeps. Wilkens plays the role with every fiber of her bodyupper lip convex like that of a monkey, leading with the hunched nape of her neck when she shuffles around the house. Its a magnificent performance, the best Ive seen from a woman whom I believe to be the best actress in the Twin Cities. I laughed and laughed, while my scalp prickled in horror...
The script, with its last-minute twists, poses a grave challenge to the actress who plays Maureen. Though Nancy Griggs Morgan didnt quite manage to convince me of her characters duality, she is generally very fine in the role; her timing in particular is spot on. J.C. Cutler deserves the highest praise for his performance as Pato. His rendition of the soliloquy-letter that opens the second act almost broke my heart. As Patos little brother Ray, Casey Greig is, to paraphrase the characters own language, feckin hilarious.
The actors dialects, coached by Teresa Lyons, are all very good if not quite flawless. Nayna Rameys set is raked downhill from stage right to left, its upper limit defined by a slanting valance; as it stretches leftwards and upstage, it crumbles away. Great to look at. Also metaphorically apt.
Eye of the Storms last hit show was "How I Learned to Drive"in my view, a somewhat overpraised production of a greatly overpraised script. But it was still a good show. "Beauty Queen"both production and scriptis much, much better.
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