Dougherty Arts Center Theater, through Aug. 5
If you want to sit in the front row for Renaissance Austin Theatre's production of A Skull in Connemara, then you might want to bring a splash guard to shield yourself from airborne cranial matter. Otherwise, you're liable to get a flying tooth lodged in your throat while a couple of smashed Irishmen wield mallets like Gallagher and shatter a few grinning skulls as they frolic to Dana's "All Kinds of Everything," a whimsical tune akin to "Puff, the Magic Dragon." It's a scene that teeters between the absurd and just plain silly.
Though Irish playwright Martin McDonagh claims that Samuel Beckett hasn't been an influence of his, he borrowed the title of this bone-crushing play from Waiting for Godot, in which the rambling Lucky laments, "The labors abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara." Rather than consign his work to randomness, McDonagh winks at Beckett, portraying a country town crusted over with typical brooding Irishness, including alcoholic Catholics, Gothic bloodshed, and cynical wit. Connemara becomes a cold landscape weighing the rocky terrain and unfinished business in a skull.
Seven years have passed since Mick Dowd was in a drunk-driving fender bender, for which he did time. His wife, Oona, was killed in the wreck, but the citizens of Leenane suspect he bludgeoned her in the head, then made it look like an accident. The play starts out with tattling Maryjohnny coming over for her usual dinner of poteen, a distilled whiskey. (Paula Ruth Gilbert's bad gray wig is distracting, but there's Irish mirth in her oversized sweater vest and rubber boots.) Her grandson Mairtin comes to the door because Father Walsh has asked him to help Mick dig up graves. Since Mick is required to disinter any bodies that have been buried for seven years, that means it's time to dig up the past. Sucking on a cigarette one minute and an inhaler the next, the local law enforcement Officer, Thomas, watches over Mick as he exhumes his wife.
Keeping up with the plot is difficult in the first few minutes of the play while your ears adjust to the Irish dialects. But this is where director Lorella Loftus' Celtic heritage bears most on McDonagh's play, taking her cast through the brogue and capturing the energy of the play's mockery. Sam Kokajko, as the bouncy hooligan Mairtin, talks so fast that it's hard to tell sometimes whether his Irish dialect is perfect, overexaggerated, or indecipherable. In the role of the head-case cop, Alex Barron's comedic timing arrives more punctually than a drunk at happy hour. Overly aloof and wonderfully rude, Daniel Norton's Mick is more of a drinker than an alcoholic when he discusses not choking on your own sick.
There's a sense of urgency throughout the play as to whether Mick is guilty of his wife's murder, even though he repeatedly denies that he is. Ultimately, his passion leads his mallet to slam into a skull that's not just been dug up from a grave. The final scenes contain a few plot twists, but they add to the tally of comical elements in the play rather than its attempts at a kind of Beckettian absurdism. In fact, he stands out from his fellow Irish playwrights in this way; he may treat the same themes that they do, but when he tries for absurdity, it just comes out as silly nonsense.
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