KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 16, 2001
Echoing from a deep cavern in my mind, I could hear the still, small voice of that budding writer, nipped in the bud — Anne Frank. “I still believe,” she said, “in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” But that mindset seemed to come from another time, another place, another planet, from the writings of Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute. An icy breeze blows through their plays, scented with casual cruelty, abject amorality and self-serving justification of murder. There’s a postmodern cynicism running rampant in the two young playwrights and their controversial works: LaBute’s “Bash” and McDonagh’s “Beauty Queen of Leenane,” but their perverse visions are extremely well served in local productions.
At UCSD, faculty director Les Waters has kept “Bash” magnificently simple and direct, which makes it all the more chilling. The inventive scenic design, by MFA student Paul Eric Pape, opens like a camera eye to give us a voyeur’s view of a nearly bare stage. In three separate monologues, each speaker has committed an unspeakable act. The segment titles hark back to Greek tragedy, the tales of Medea, where a mother kills her child out of vengeance, and Iphegenia, where a father sacrifices his daughter to further his career. All the characters are Mormons; they use their religion as a crutch and they speak disparagingly of people who “aren’t in our ward.” Maybe those kinds of folks just don’t deserve to live; and besides, there will always be an endless supply of Mormon babies. The four performances are outstanding; Zina Camblin and Brian Sgambati are especially unsettling. Waters has teased from these talented student actors the offhand insouciance that renders their lives and deeds even more terrifying, though also, at times, their thought processes are frightfully familiar.
Humanity doesn’t look much better in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” Here, in a cramped, decrepit cottage, in a forgotten corner of Ireland, a spinster daughter of 40 still lives with her hypochondriacal mother. They are as oppressed inside as their country is outside. The resentment builds, and the pent-up steam is released through mutually malicious acts. Written in a week, when McDonagh was 23, the play garnered four Tony Awards on Broadway, and has become a worldwide hit.
It is a mystery, a thriller, a fantasy, and a bleak saga of dysfunctional family life in the face of poverty and minimal opportunity. McDonagh virtually invented the dialect in the play, and it’s beautifully handled by a brilliant cast: Priscilla Allen as the monstrous matriarch; Deborah Van Valkenburgh magnificent as her bitter daughter Maureen; Peter Friedrich a hoot as the young slacker neighbor, and Douglas Roberts very solid as his older brother, Maureen’s last chance for escape.
Though he has cast impeccably, director Sam Woodhouse is a bit heavy-handed with the piece. In the original Druid Theatre production that went to Broadway, the unfolding of awful acts was shocking, to say the least, and the ending was thoroughly enigmatic. Here, some pivotal moments are predictable, and the final scene is less magical and mysterious. But the sum total, including the excellent design work (set by Robin Sanford Roberts, lighting by Mike Buckley, sound by Peter Hasagen), makes for heart-stopping theater. Anne Frank may be rolling in her grave, but the Muses are satisfied. It may not always hold up the most flattering mirror, but tough, sinewy, substantial art shows us as we are — warts, murderous intentions and all.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.