Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at Marin Theatre Company

(Beth Wilmurt and Joy Carlin in classic sitcom staging in Marin Theatre Company's production. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

At times The Beauty Queen of Leenane, now at Marin Theatre Company, felt so much like a domestic sitcom that I half-expected to see three tv cameras between the performers and the (studio) audience. Rural Irish mother and daughter Mag (Joy Carlin) and Maureen (Beth Wilmurt) would fit right in in George Costanza's family if they replaced their Gaelic brogue for a New York one. Nina Ball's set might isolate them from the rest of the world — their wall-less kitchen is surrounded by swaths of fabric that suggest a fog; they are floating in space, but the mist is closing in — but inside the setup is as familiar as that of the pre-prime time re-run lineup. One family member sits in her chair, the other at the table, as they trade barbs about how they wish one another were dead. Somewhere, Jason Alexander is yelling constipatedly.

The plot of Martin McDonagh’s comic drama seems television-simple as well. Maureen has been stuck taking care of her weaselly yet doltish mother for years, but as the play begins, Pato (Rod Gnapp), an old crush, returns to County Connemara, potentially giving her a ticket out. Melodramatic hairpin turns follow (the plot hinges on storytelling devices from another era: letters and messengers!), revealing Maureen as much more similar to her mother than the daughter would care to admit.

So far, this doesn’t resemble the kind of work I’ve lately seen from director Mark Jackson. Typically, his plays are anything but conventional, particularly in their staging; his blocking is kinetic, fluid, and evocative. Static movement suits this play’s setting and themes, of course. But in both style and content, this production struck me as much more generic, something any director could have done, rather than having the distinct Jackson imprint I usually so enjoy.

But I am leaving out the play’s saving grace. Maureen is more than a restless, put-upon forty-year-old. She is also deeply troubled, so much so that her vision of the world is skewed. This first manifests itself subtly, as when she interprets an offhand remark from Pato as a scathing criticism of her looks. But it slowly becomes apparent that Maureen’s acerbic jokes aren’t just jokes; something sinister infects her. McDonagh shows this side of her in a classically realistic manner: the delayed revelation of a dark family secret. But afterward, he does not make her the object of our pity or scorn. Rather, we see the world through her eyes, only we don’t know it. The quasi-realistic, quasi-melodramatic world that unfolds is her vision projected onto the stage. And when we find out that what we see is a lie, her lie, the one she tells herself, and that we’ve been believing it, too — it’s one of the most compelling stagings I’ve ever seen of the idea that for the troubled, what they see isn’t “crazy”; for them it’s real and normal – plain as day, observable by the senses. It makes me wonder how much of my reality is verifiable by outside sources and how much is something I’ve talked myself into.

(Joy Carlin's elastic face. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Jackson’s cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Carlin, who can do broad physical comedy with her face and voice alone. She seems to have the ability to bisect her face vertically, so that each half is making its own expression; it’s often a lopsided smile: one side is a slack-jawed, “Who, me?” half-grin; the other is alert and sharp, scheming to keep Maureen in her place.

With their talents, Beauty Queen always entertains, but its true payoff comes only toward the end. I only wish the direction had helped bring the script out of sitcomland a little earlier.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16; info here.

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