Four Irish people. Three skulls. Two Brothers. One Murder. And Father Welsch. Walsch. Tut. A morbid dabble into dark humor with lots of mind blowing moments comes to light in Centerstage’s production of A Skull in Connemara. Directed by BJ Jones, this grave tale unfolds in a little Irish town where the cemeteries are full up and every seven years the bodies are exhumed to make room for more. With dark moments so funny that your skull will be splitting, you won’t want to miss this gruesome little story.
The outskirts of a derelict old graveyard set the stage on either side. Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal creates the slightly haunted feeling of a spooky old cemetery by elevating the tombstones at odd angles as if the dead were shifting about beneath the soil. Rosenthal uses weeds, dead grass and a gnarled old tree that twists up toward the sky to enhance the effect. But the masterpiece of scenery is the two actual graves that go down into the stage from which real dirt, coffin planks, and skeletal remains are dug. Even though it is on a stage when the diggers start shoveling real dirt up from the grave in the subdued night – lighting shivers are easily chasing up your spine. The use of real dirt and the quantity in which it is used is astonishing; really heightening the sense that they are digging up actual graves.
Playwright Martin McDonagh creates the perfect combination of hilarity and grave seriousness throughout the play and these points are well executed by director BJ Jones. There are moments when the scene is incredibly tense – an accusation of murder which flips into a laughable moment as a written confession goes up in smoke. Jones has his actors well planted, grounded in the reality of their choices, and he utilizes the space provided in such a way as to make the stage feel endless, as if Mick and Martin could traipse through the boundless cemetery without ever leaving the audience’s sight.
The shifting tone of the show is well executed and should be credited to the actors. Four distinctive characters arise with their own mannerisms, gestures, and voices creating captivating people for the audience to enjoy. There’s bumbling officer, Thomas Hanlon (Richard Thieriot) who wants to be a real detective. Thieriot displays the right combination of seriousness and stupidity in his portrayal of the officer; often pausing for a moment to let confusion pass over his features as what was said sinks in. His interactions with his brother Martin (Jordan Brown) are comical; as he plays the older of the brothers, Thieriot presenting a playful bullying manner to Brown’s character as they muck about in the graveyard.
Martin (Brown) is the none-too-bright troublesome youth. Brown is incredibly physical in his expressions letting his body serve as an extension of his emotions as he bounces around the stage, particularly in the scene where he is drunk. Brown will have the audience falling to pieces with his shenanigans in the graveyard regarding the skulls; using them as fake breasts, attempting to juggle them, etc. His emotional responses are never stifled or predictable and watching the way he makes each new discovery, especially when his character is drunk, is incredible.
Maryjohnny (Barbara Kingsley) is the epitome of cantankerous old grandma set in her ways. She’s a wily riot with her tastes for Bingo and moonshine. Kingsley provides hysterical comic relief in her simple interactions with her two grandsons, telling them off and making accusations. She creates a voice that clearly says “I know better than you because I’m older” and sips heartily on the booze she mooches from Mick (Si Osborne) with a dreadful sour face that makes the whole audience laugh. Her performance, though brief, is nothing short of stellar, especially when she totters about the stage going back to retrieve her fluorescent pens, which she desperately needs for Bingo.
Mick (Si Osborne) is the grave digger, or body exhumer. Osborne creates a dynamic character who shifts rapidly from moments of easy indifference to angry defense. His facial expressions are harrowing when he refers to his late wife, and comical when in the graveyard. A rollercoaster of feelings gets displayed through his eyes during the performance. He has a breathtaking moment where he’s deep in the grave and suddenly lunges up onto the stage, shovel in hand like a spear, anger grounding him to the spot as he stands like a soldier ready to attack. Osborne and Brown create a moment of morbid delight when returning to his house with the unearthed bones; and let’s just say if you’re in the first few rows— watch your heads! During the graveyard scenes the pair are flinging dirt at each other like it was snow in a rowdy boy’s snowball fight and they are quick to play off of each other’s insults.
But the scene-stealing moment is when Officer Thomas (Richard Thieriot) backs up behind Martin (Brown) over the open grave and gives him the boot. Brown tumbles down into the grave and Osborne and Thieriot spring into action trying to comically bury him before he can pop back up; a hysterical moment not to be missed.
The four performers have great chemistry between them – on varying levels between Mick (Osborne) and Martin (Brown) as well as Thomas (Thieriot) and Martin (Brown) and Maryjohnny (Kingsley) and Mick (Osborne.) These well established relationships give the play credible reality; their characters are flawed but it feels so human that it becomes very real and believable.
A Skull in Connemara is a smashing success of a dark and dreary comedy with poignant moments of sobering reality sliding between the skulls.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
A Skull in Connemaraplays through March 4, 2012, at CENTERSTAGE – 700 North Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.