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Bloodbaths and Shadows

Padraic and his shadow, hanging around Inishmore
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Martin McDonagh's black-as-coal Irish comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, opens with two men — one old and crusty, the other young with flowing locks — staring at a very still black cat lying on a wooden table. They stare at the creature for a long time, intently, as the laughter slowly builds in the Mark Taper Forum, where the play opened over the weekend. The room is a hovel, with a prominent sign nailed to the back wall, reading "Home Sweet Home." (The ironies in this comedy are everything but subtle; the set design is by Allen Moyer.)

One of the men picks up a paw then lets it go. There appears to be no motor response from the feline. The older man then picks up the cat and all four paws remain rigid. At about this moment, a piece of bloodied brain splatters down from the cat's head onto the table with a wet thud. This pretty much resolves the young man's desperate question of whether the cat has any life left in him, and sets the tone for what's going to unfold as the most uncompromising comedic gore fest in Broadway history.

The old man is named Donny (Seán G. Griffin), who's been taking care of a beloved black cat for his psychopathic son, Padraic (Chris Pine) — a self-appointed "lieutenant" in an IRA splinter group called the Irish National Liberation Army. (The IRA wouldn't take him, on account of his being "too mad.") The younger man, Davey (Coby Getzug) — a boy, really — appears to have struck the cat while riding his bicycle on an isolated road, and is now paralyzed with fear over the consequences. He insists he found the dead cat and wanted to bring it to Donny rather than leave it on the road. The skeptical Donny checks Davey's bicycle spokes for evidence of cat brains. The pair make a pact, to cover for Davey by explaining to "mental" Padraic that his cat died of natural causes. Their efforts to make their story stick prove to be gloriously inept.

Not only is Padraic a self-appointed lieutenant, he's a self-appointed moral guardian, too. He's in the middle of torturing a suspected drug dealer, James (Brett Ryback). James hangs shackled upside down from the ceiling with blood dripping down his torso from Padraic's extraction-via-pliers of two small toenails on one foot. In the middle of their perfectly amiable conversation, a call comes in on Padraic's cell phone — a call from Donny reporting that "Wee Thomas" (the cat) hasn't been eating lately. (Well, that much seems true.) And here we see Padraic, who was in the middle of slicing off his suspended-upside-down victim's right nipple, collapse into paroxysms of despair over his cat's loss of appetite.

With this play's eventual patricide, de facto sadism and moral perversity shared by an entire community, the lunacy is a politicized extension of a play by McDonagh's forefather John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World, while having much in common with the humor of American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. It's in Tarantino's comedy Pulp Fiction that somebody has a line about "getting medieval on your ass" — and that's exactly where that movie and this play both go.

There was a graphic torture scene in Bill Cain's play Equivocation which was performed last year at the Geffen Playhouse. Somebody, whom the English government of King James I had branded a terrorist, was seen lying on a table being disemboweled. Behind the sound of his screams, his guts appeared like red snakes. A few people in the audience giggled from sheer discomfort and the attempt to create an emotional distance from the horror, but that was not the Jesuit playwright's intent, which was to chasten the audience about the essence of torture through an unflinchingly authentic depiction.

McDonagh, too, is grappling with the crudest of power dynamics in a local neighborhood, and both playwrights use graphic violence to strike back at the hypocrisy of political movements in general, and self-righteous bullies in particular.

The difference between Cain's attitude and that of McDonagh is subtle but crucial. Cain served up a cautionary tale about our war on terror via an allegory from Guy Fawkes' alleged bomb threat against the Houses of Parliament, and a playwright's responsibilities when writing about it — in this case, the playwright being Shakespeare. McDonagh's comedy is far less introspective and thoughtful, and far more reactive.

The stage pictures say as much as the words in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. By Act 2, thick pools of clotting goo coat the floor of "Home Sweet Home" while brutal, bloodstained lovers Padraic and Davey's sister, Mairead (Zoe Perry) vow to wed as soon as "Ireland is free."

"Well, that's going to be a fecking long engagement," cracks Donny.

McDonagh directs his wrath at a political insurrection in its death throes. The result of all their actions is not only vicious but pointless. And his comedy is a beautifully sculpted satire to that effect.

You have to wonder how comparatively dangerous a similar comedy about al-Qaida would be. If anybody dared to portray al-Qaida terrorists as similarly inept, vicious and sentimental, there's a chance that the Mark Taper Forum might not survive the run of the show, or any other theater that put it on.

Nobody would be laughing then, no matter how many dead cats got flung around the stage, or human heads got severed with garden shears. It's a fine line between unfettered comedy and unfettered rage. I'm not sure that Pine's handsome terrorist Padraic is sufficiently terrifying, but the ensemble is strong, with every note ringing true under Wilson Milam's staging.

A new L.A.-based ensemble called Psittacus Productions is extending a performance of A Tale Told by an Idiot from the Hollywood Fringe at Son of Semele theater. It's a mash-up of Shakespeare's Macbeth that includes the character of Guy Fawkes, which suggests an influence from Bill Cain's Equivocation. Every scene of the hour-long piece is a plot against somebody's life or a murder, starring — among the very strong ensemble — the lighting plot of designer Dan Weingarten.

The action unfolds behind a scrim and is lit entirely with pin lights, some on the floor, some held by the performers. We see only faces, shifting eyes and shadows creeping across scrims and walls. The three witches (Casey Fitzgerald, Madeleine Hamer and Liz Saydah) appear in masks, and all we see are those masks, or three hands crawling up a wall, or feet tremulously stepping. In some scenes we just see two daggers, barely illuminated, and little more. With composer Graham Galatro's composition, the effect is mesmerizing, culminating in the closing line, that comes in Macbeth right before the more famous "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing." The line that lingers is that line's direct predecessor: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."

This is the lucid essence of the piece. Fine performances also by Casey Brown, Louis Butelli, Lisa Carter, Daryl Crittenden, Darin Dahms and Chas LiBretto. Robert Richmond directs.

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE | By MARTIN McDONAGH | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Aug. 7 | (213) 628-2772

A TALE TOLD BY AN IDIOT | "Inspired by William Shakespeare's Macbeth" | Presented by Psittacus Productions | SON OF SEMELE, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | Opens July 9; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through July 25 | (646) 425-4615