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vancouverplays review


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— Production poster

by Martin McDonagh
Ensemble Theatre Company
Jericho Arts Centre
July 7-Aug. 13

Ensemble Theatre Company kicks off its 2014 summer repertory season with a sharp, funny production of one of Martin McDonagh’s sharpest, funniest, bleakest portraits of rural Irish life.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is set on a tiny island off Ireland’s west coast, near where, in 1934, director Robert Flaherty shot his Hollywood film The Man of Aran. The play looks at the way the filming changed—or failed to change—the lives of a motley assortment of the island’s inhabitants.

“Cripple Billy” (Max Wallace), a young man physically twisted with what appear to be the symptoms of cerebral palsy, lives with his two “pretend-aunts,” Eileen (Rebecca Walters) and Kate (Alison Raine), who adopted him as a child when his parents drowned. The circumstances of their drowning will get at least three different interpretations during the play.

Rebellious, violent, foul-mouthed young Helen (Stephanie Elgersma) and her goofy, sweets-loving brother Bartley (Erik Gow), are regular visitors to the aunts’ modest shop, which is stocked mostly with canned peas. Another regular is the island’s rumourmonger, Johnnypateenmike (Sean Allen), who brings news of the film shoot on the neighbouring island of Inishmore.

When Helen announces that she and Bartley are going to Inishmore so she can be in the “fil-im,” Billy decides he’ll go, too. Maybe Hollywood is looking for cripples and he can get a screen test. He convinces boat owner Babbybobby (Paul Herbert) to take him. The rest of the play looks at the consequences of that journey.

The play is fantastically funny, often in a Beckettian way. So little happens in this nowhere place that the most banal events are “news.” Billy stares at cows for fun. Kate talks to a rock. Helen chucks eggs at the priest who was touching her arse at choir practice.

The funniest character is Bartley, whose obsession with sweets leads to a couple of hilarious scenes, including one in which Helen cracks at least four eggs over his head. Gow owns the stage as Bartley, but everyone on this cast has the Irish comic gift, including Rosie Frier-Dryden as Johnnypateenmike’s 90-year-old alcoholic mother who Johnny keeps trying to kill, unsuccessfully, with booze.

The star of the show, though, is Wallace, who gives Cripple Billy a powerful quiet dignity as a kid who wrestles with his demons and aspires to something better in a place where such aspirations barely exist.

Kudos to director Matthew Bissett for getting such solidly consistent work from his excellent cast, and to dialect coach Brian Parkinson. The deliciously thick Irish dialect is remarkably consistent from character to character and gives the show much of its flavor. John Bessette’s set works very nicely, too.

This is delightful black comedy, highly recommended.

Jerry Wasserman



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