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Contrary to what the old wives tale would want you to believe, cats do not actually have nine lives. A visit to Google quickly reveals that it’s the remarkable ability most cats have to survive the kinds of falls that would land most human beings in the hospital or in the morgue that is the source of this well-worn saying.
Through that Google search you’ll also find a page where someone details a festival that is purportedly held in a village in Belgium where villagers toss toy cats from the top of a tower because — and you have to appreciate the admittedly misguided loyalty to heritage here — in 962, Count Baldwin III threw some cats from the tower. It’s not clear whether this was a one time thing or a habit. Whether the reports of this festival would survive a call to the Belgian embassy for verification is up for debate, but even disproving its existence would leave another fundamental question: Why would someone make something like this up — either the original act or this plush toy-centric yet inherently gory town celebration?
Who would create a fiction that revolves around the brutal murder of an animal so many consider a sound and comforting companion? Do they think it would be entertaining? Funny, perhaps? An amusing way to spend an evening if followed by a glass of wine and a light appetizer?
Not the Web site creator. We’ll give that writer the benefit of the doubt and assume his posting has been checked and verified.
No, the feline funnyman in question is playwright Martin McDonagh, whose The Lieutenant of Inishmore is currently at Signature Theatre. Theatergoers — or those who are just fans of watching the Tony Awards — might recognize McDonagh’s name from The Pillowman or The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The 38-year-old writer, whose credits already include a Drama Desk award, an Olivier Award and an Oscar, has crafted a dark and disturbing comedy (yes, comedy) whose elements include torture, dismemberment and cat-ricide. Multiple cat-ricides.
Padraic (Karl Miller) returns to his home on the Irish island of Inishmore when he learns that his cat is doing ”poorly.” What the more-than-slightly unbalanced terrorist (he belongs to an IRA splinter group and targets chip shops because they’re easier to bomb than airports) does not know is that his feline best friend, Wee Thomas, is actually quite dead.
Borrowing from the old joke, Padraic’s father (John Lescault) tells Padraic that Thomas is ill so he can slowly break the news of the cat’s demise. He’s doing poorly. He’s gone off his food. He’s taken a turn for the worse. I’m sorry to tell you son, but the cat has died.
And that’s what is ultimately so interesting about The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The heart of the play is actually inoffensive and simple and a fairly well-worn bit of humor at that. It is swathed, however, in some of the most brutal, gory and disturbing wrappings you’re likely to see onstage any time soon. And that’s taking into account Sweeney Todd and word that a musical version of American Psycho is in the works. After all, the play’s romantic lead is a man whose anger issues kept him from being accepted by the IRA.
This is not a show for folks prone to queasy stomachs, have delicate sensibilities or who sport PETA stickers on their Volvos. (That’s actually not quite true, as McDonagh has thrown something in there for the militant animal lover on your theater-ticket gift list.)
It’s also not for those who would be embarrassed were their friends to find out that their taste in comedy runs ”Marilyn Manson fingernail polish” dark because, as unlikely as it seems, Lieutenant is quite funny. Funeral parlor funny, but funny nonetheless.
The play’s bloody and uneasy humor works thanks to the guidance of director Jeremy Skidmore and the cast, who manage to make the brutally uncommon seem almost common. Or, common to McDonagh’s fun/slaughterhouse version of the Irish countryside.
Miller makes for a terrifying yet inexplicably charming Padraic. Think Dexter with a delightful accent. He’s ably joined by Casie Platt as the lovestruck and brilliantly deranged Mairead and Matthew McGloin as the dim and utterly hopeless Davey.
It’s difficult to say what will ultimately come of Signature’s Inishmore. It will offend some, baffle others. And it will cause a few to cast nervous glances at dates that are doubled over laughing at the carnage on stage.