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Dem bones

Skull in Connemara whistles in a graveyard


You can accuse Martin McDonagh of many things, but being too sentimental about Ireland is not one of them. Born in England to Irish parents, the playwright shows his feelings about Irish tradition in the second act of A Skull in Connemara. Two characters dig up the bones of the deceased, take them back to a cottage and smash them with mallets, with the song "Danny Boy" playing on the radio all the while. Theatre Gael's production proves that this is not a writer who gets misty-eyed about "the Emerald Isle."

In the rural community of Connemara, exhuming skeletons isn't an isolated atrocity like the events at Tri-State Crematory. It's an annual event, as the local cemetery isn't big enough to accommodate the freshly departed, so the older residents have to be moved and put elsewhere. It's no surprise that the local graveyard would have population control problems, given that Connemara is the latest installment in McDonagh's "Leenane" trilogy, which values life cheaply. Each play puts a family relationship under murderous pressures, with mother vs. daughter in The Beauty Queen of Leenane and two brothers at each other's throats in The Lonesome West.

In Connemara a marriage had a comparably bloody outcome, although the death in question happened years before the play's action. Seven years earlier, hard-drinking gravedigger Mick Dowd (Bryan Davis) killed his wife Una in a drunk-driving mishap, which some neighbors whisper was no accident. Mick has maintained his innocence for years, but the matter will be literally resurfacing soon, as this year Mick has to disinter his own wife's grave.

Morbid though the subject matter may be, Connemara is an outrageously funny comedy. Mick's unwelcome partner in his undertaking is the dimwitted Mairtin (Travis Young), a hooligan in a Corrosion of Conformity T-shirt. Mairtin spews invective like, "You're a bastard of a bastard of a bastard of a feck!" and is the butt of put-downs like "He's as thick as five thick fellas, that fella."

Elderly Mary Johnny (Lynne Ashe) has more tersely wry dialogue. Connemara's fourth character, a police officer named Tom (John Benzinger), at first strikes us as a menacing, nightstick-wielding figure of state authority. Then we learn that he aspires to solve crimes like Quincy or Agent Mulder, but we realize that his deductive reasoning is closer to Inspector Clouseau's.

Benzinger brings out plenty of awkward physical humor in Tom, who at one point smokes a cigarette with one hand and uses an asthma inhaler with the other. Mick plays straight man to the rest, with Davis amusingly making his reaction time just a beat too slow. Connemara's comedy ranges from the slapstick of Mairtin repeatedly falling into open graves to such verbal gross-outs as whether its more newsworthy if someone chokes to death on "pee" or on "sick."

Connemara's characters prove to be a fine bunch of clowns, but despite having outbursts of angst or violence, clowns are all they are. In retrospect, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, however highly charged, feel anecdotal and thin compared to the trilogy's first play. The Beauty Queen of Leenane unfolded like a Tennessee Williams rewrite of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but touched on real despair and desperation.

The Theatre Gael production's limited budget can undermine Connemara. Skulls are prominent as per the title, but they're clearly made of Styrofoam and squeak when rubbed together, which really takes you out of the play. The small performing space means the stage graces can only be a couple of feet deep, but Theatre Gael's cast digs as deeply as they can. Despite his gift for profane repartee, it's McDonagh who proves shallow.

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