Two Chapel Hill, NC-based theater companies, Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions, have combined to create a crackerjack joint production of A Skull in Connemara, a grisly black Irish comedy by up-and-coming playwright Martin McDonagh. Director Gregory Kable deftly explores the dark humor and macabre wit that make this second installment in McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy such a scream.
The Leenane Trilogy, which takes its name the isolated rural town in Galway in Western Ireland, where all three plays are set, always looks on the dark side, where scandalous secrets, murderous rage, and unexpected violence simmer just beneath the surface, always threatening to erupt as McDonagh’s reckless characters viciously egg each other on as they drink themselves into a stupor.
John Murphy is one of this area’s finest character actors; and he is in top form as Mick Dowd, a widowed gravedigger who lives by himself in a bleak cottage beside the overflowing graveyard of a country church. Once a year, Mick must dig up some of the graveyard’s older inhabitants — and dispose of their moldy remains — to make space for new graves. This year, he must disinter the section where his own wife, Oona, lies after being killed in a car wreck while not wearing her seatbelt (or was it murdered by his own hands seven years ago, as many of his friends and family suspect?).
This year, young ne’er-do-well Mairtin Hanlon (Jeff Alguire) good-naturedly volunteers to assist Mick with this ghastly task, in exchange for a swig or two or five of Mick’s potent home-made liquor; but Mairtin, his equally feckless brother Thomas (Chris Chiron), and their gossipy grandmother Mary Rafferty (Marsha Edmundson) also believe that Mick has a secret gnawing away in his guts. Maybe it will erupt when Mick comes face to face with the skull and bones of the woman that all three of them think he murdered. Maybe there are clues to murder in Oona’s unquiet grave.
John Murphy is superb as the outwardly jovial Mick, Jeff Alguire is hilarious as the booze-addled Mairtin, whose drunken accusations bring Mick’s heretofore dormant temper to the boiling point. Marsha Edmundson and Chris Chiron provide belly laughs as tough-talking, snuff-dipping, bingo-playing Mary Rafferty, who can nurse a grudge for years and years and years, and squinty-eyed Thomas Hanlon, a suspicious policeman who foolishly confronts his chief suspect (Mick) before he has accumulated sufficient evidence to prove him guilty of murder.
Predictably, violence erupts. But McDonagh’s mordant humor eventually conquers a day and an eventful night full of heavy drinking; wild accusations; the methodical smashing of unwanted skulls and bones to smithereens; and, ultimately, the thump of the lethal bone-crushing mallet on the skull of one of Mick’s most incorrigible accusers.
If black comedy — particularly black IRISH comedy — is your cup of tea, by all means go see A Skull in Connemara. Superlatively staged by Gregory Kable and imaginatively designed by Rob Hamilton (sets and lighting) and Grier Coleman (costumes), this knee-slapping Wordshed and Ghost & Spice co-production boasts four exceptionally fine performances that make the quirky gallows humor of Martin McDonagh’s masterpiece of the macabre ring true.
Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions present A Skull in Connemara Thursday-Saturday, June 30-July 2, and July 7-9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 3 and 10, at 6 p.m. in Studio 6 in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 ($5 students and $10 seniors and UNC faculty and staff), except $5 all seats on June 30th. 888/239-9253. Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/season/skull_of_connemara.html [inactive 1/06]. Martin McDonagh (from The Literary Encyclopedia): http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5811 [inactive 1/06].
Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions, both based in Chapel Hill, NC, will present A Skull in Connemara, a brilliant but very, very black comedy by prize-winning Irish playwriting prodigy Martin McDonagh, June 23-July 10 in Studio 6 in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This joint production, directed by UNC Department of Dramatic Art faculty member and PlayMakers Repertory Company associate dramaturg Gregory Kable, stars Chris Chiron, John Murphy, Jeff Alguire, and Marsha Edmundson.
Kable notes, “I first encountered McDonagh’s work in 1999 while dramaturging one of the first regional productions of The Beauty Queen of Leenane for PlayMakers Repertory Company. Since that time, I have directed The Cripple of Inishmaan for the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC-CH and spoken on McDonagh’s plays at several national and international academic conferences.”
He adds, “McDonagh both embraces and explodes the rich traditions of Irish theater. His plays are vividly engaging and extreme — from the plots, through the characters, to their sheer theatricality. His rare dramatic instincts reward all of the care and attention you can bring to the texts. Finding the right combination of humor and horror to bring the play to life is a fascinating process.”
Indeed, when reviewing this show’s West End (London) premiere in 1997, The Guardian wrote, “Mr. McDonagh’s great strength is that he combines a love of traditional storytelling with the savage ironic humour of the modern generation…. In A Skull in Connemara, a gravedigger, whose job is to disinter the bones of seven-year-old corpses and smash them to pulp, is hotly suspected of killing his wife.”
Kable says A Skull in Connemara is set in “the rural Galway town of Leenane.” When the curtain rises, he adds, “Mick Dowd (John Murphy) prepares for his yearly labor of displacing remains of the dead from the local churchyard in order to make room for fresh burials. This year is unique in that Mick will disinter his deceased wife, Oona, who died under mysterious circumstances seven years prior. Mick is to be assisted by a local youth, Mairtin Hanlon (Jeff Alguire), who harbors suspicions shared by his grandmother Mary Rafferty (Marcia Edmundson) and the ineffectual local policeman, Martin’s brother Tom (Chris Chiron). Conflicts surrounding the past reach a head with the discovery that Oona’s remains have disappeared from her grave.”
In addition to director Gregory Kable, the show’s production team includes set designer and lighting designer Rob Hamilton, and costume designer Grier Coleman.
Kable says the set is “a rural cottage and the local graveyard … incorporated into a split-level design,” the lighting is “naturalistic,” and the costumes are “contemporary.”
“McDonagh’s plays demand both honesty and audaciousness on the part of their actors,” Kable says, “and he additionally poses challenging technical elements to be solved in production (in this case, practical gravesites and perishable collections of bones for nightly disposal).”
He adds, “While the middle play of McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy (along with Beauty Queen and The Lonesome West), Skull can be fully enjoyed and appreciated as an independent experience.”
Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions present A Skull in Connemara Thursday-Saturday, June 23-25, June 30-July 2, and July 7-9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 24 and July 3 and 10, at 6 p.m. in Studio 6 in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 ($5 students and $10 seniors and UNC faculty and staff), except $5 all seats on June 30th. 888/239-9253. Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/season/skull_of_connemara.html [inactive 1/06]. Martin McDonagh (from The Literary Encyclopedia): http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5811 [inactive 1/06].