AISLE SAY Twin Cities


by Martin McDonagh
directed by Casey Stangl
Eye of the Storm Theatre
at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage
711 Franklin Ave. S., Minneapolis / (612) 728-5859

Reviewed by Steve Schroer

If you look out the window long enough, eventually you’ll 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 he’s 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? It’s 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 it’s 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 McDonagh’s 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 it’s worth, is that you should believe the hype. On the evidence of this show, McDonagh is a spectacularly talented writer–grimly 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 Angela’s Ashes and its various knockoffs; but the pedigree can be traced from Sean O’Casey through Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and James T. Farrell’s 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 O’Neill (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 stage–querulous 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 Mag’s 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 Maureen’s 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 Storm’s 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. I’m guessing that Claudia Wilkens conceived Mag’s face as a mask from behind which her mind fitfully peeps. Wilkens plays the role with every fiber of her body–upper lip convex like that of a monkey, leading with the hunched nape of her neck when she shuffles around the house. It’s a magnificent performance, the best I’ve 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 didn’t quite manage to convince me of her character’s 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 Pato’s little brother Ray, Casey Greig is, to paraphrase the character’s own language, feckin’ hilarious.

The actors’ dialects, coached by Teresa Lyons, are all very good if not quite flawless. Nayna Ramey’s 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 Storm’s 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 script–is much, much better.

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