Lantern Theater’s A Skull in Connemara Puts the ‘Mac’ in ‘Macabre’

Reviewed by Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew

So, who needs a closet when skeletons are part of your cast of characters? No matter if they’re somewhat, errm, not exactly disembodied, but let’s say, disarticulated. Isn’t that a sign of our times anyway?

As part of the Philadelphia Irish Theater Festival, the Lantern Theater has dished up a delightfully macabre smorgasbord (“smorgueasbord”?) of bones, booze, burials, and sibling rivalry featuring Stephen Novelli (Mick), Jake Blouch (Mairtin), Ellen Mulroney (Maryjohnny), and Jered McLenigan (Thomas).

Playwright Martin McDonagh is renowned for blood, guts, body parts, and deliberately gratuitous (but thought-provoking) violence. His A Skull in Connemara mostly avoids the ooze, the soft tissue, the gore and the cruor, but doesn’t stint on femurs, tibias, craniums and mandibles.

His boyo/gasúr/young-fellow-me-lad of a not-so-“numb”-skull character, Mairtin, even gives Hamlet a run for his kroner. Mairtin poses with a couple of skulls artfully angled and brings their dilemmas to life in a little cranio-puppeteering that would make Ray Harryhausen, skeleton-animator for Jason and the Argonauts, proud.

Directors Craig Getting and Kathryn MacMillan guide McDonagh’s delightfully dysfunctional foursome through small talk, gossip, some upfront backbiting, and some fine Irish examples of  “béadán,” “cúlchaint,” “feannadh,” “gastóga,” and “ithiomrá” (to offer up an assortment of Irish words that range in meaning from “quick retorts” to “verbal flaying”).

Ever wonder why the Irish have so many words to describe conversational calumniation in its various nuances? If A Skull in Connemara doesn’t exactly answer that question outright, it certainly exemplifies the phenomenon. Presumably that’s a reflection of McDonagh’s take on his experiences as a teenager visiting Connemara, including his father’s native Lettermullen, in the heart of the Gaeltacht.

As an English-speaker in a primarily Irish-speaking area, and no doubt with adolescent angst to boot, his situation must have been both one of returned near-native son and outsider-onlooker. One wonders what sort of plays McDonagh would write if he actually spoke Irish!

In reviewing Irish plays, I find myself constantly checking program notes for glossaries and cultural background, which are often very helpful on this side of the lochán (pond). Individual words and concepts, ranging from “loys” to “Lughnasa,” have all made their way into local dramaturgical commentary, all to the better.

As an Irish language teacher, I always wonder how well Irish, even Irish-American audiences, understand the occasional Gaelic word that pops up in an English-medium Irish play. Such words abound, densely in Synge and Lady Gregory’s west-of-Ireland patois and sporadically in McDonagh.

McDonagh usually only gives a very light dose of actual Gaelic, even if his English syntax is as convoluted as Celtic grammar appears to most learners.

So my handful of bucket-list items for this production would be a little more context, a lexicographical note or two for the non-Irish-speaking audience, and something to remind us that while            McDonagh puts the “mac” in “macabre,” he views Ireland from the viewpoint of a displaced teenager.

Will he ever reveal if he actually looked forward to those summers in County Galway? Or, like some cross-diaspora experiences, was he just sent there, like it or not, to foot the turf, save the hay, and probably squeeze into a crowded Connemara cottage, without the amenities and anonymity of London?

And by the way, just as well that the skeletons are out front and center in this play, since Irish cottages, like colonial American ones, didn’t traditionally have closets, as has been noted by writers ranging from Cathal Ó Searcaigh to Olive Sharkey