Playwright: Martin McDonagh. At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie, Skokie. Phone: 847-673-6300, $25-$55 . Runs through: June 7. Photo courtesy of Northlight Theatre
For those who like their humor drenched in bodily fluids and so pitch-black that you can't see the hand in front of your face, nirvana awaits in the sticky severed limbs and oozing cats of Northlight Theatre's marvelous production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
Forget leprechauns and rolling emerald hills. This corner of Ireland is a place of cat killers who leave felines leaking brains all over the kitchen table; of winsome young lasses who practice marksmanship by shooting the eyeballs out of cows; and of members of splinter groups of the IRA ( Irish Republican Army ) splinter groups who—in the name of a free Ireland—cut the nipples off petty marijuana dealers. In short, McDonagh makes Quentin Tarantino look like Walt Disney.
Does the playwright go soaring hundreds of miles over the top as he covers the stage with ankle-deep carnage and hacksaw-wielding protagonists? Yes. Does he occasionally rely more on violence than on substance? Yes. Does he manipulate the audience through sheer, jaw-dropping shocks? Yes. Did we enjoy every last blood-soaked second of this rollicking splatter-fest? Oh, yes. Directed by BJ Jones, every ounce of so-twisted-it's-mutilated humor and seeping viscera shines through. The result is a gruesome delight.
Much of the guilty pleasure here comes from the killer cast Jones has assembled. John Judd and Matt DeCaro are the elder statesmen of the ensemble, actors at the top of their craft whose presence in any given cast tends to automatically elevate it toward the realms of the superior. Going toe to toe with them is Cliff Chamberlain as Padraic, the magnificently deranged title character—a man so madly sadistic and short-tempered ( never a good combination, that ) that even IRA splinter groups won't have him.
DeCaro is Donny, Padraic's sad-eyed, less than whip-smart father—not that family ties would stop father from executing son or vice versa should the situation call for it ( and, of course, the situation eventually does call for just that. ) Judd is a hulking, one-eyed menace and on a self-appointed mission to kill Padraic, a mission that eventually proves both literally and figuratively short-sighted.
Chamberlain's Padraic, it must be noted, isn't entirely without heart. He loves his cat, Wee Thomas, with the slobbering, sentimental devotion of the world's most earnest Hallmark card. Midway through a workaday morning slicing body parts from a strapping young lad screaming for mercy, Padraic abruptly cuts his ( newly toenail-free ) victim loose after said victim provides him with some timely advice about treating feline ringworm.
It's the cat, brains bashed in—or rather, out—that ignites an avalanche of violence that eventually boasts a body count to rival the final scenes of the Oresteia cycle.
Chamberlain—who has been turning in solid supporting work for years —gets a breakout role as Padraic. Whether cradling a headless cat or taking a straight-razor to somebody's nipples, he's pitch-perfect. Also utterly wonderful is Jamie Abelson as Davey, a shoe polish-huffing young man who has more hair than brains.
And a huge tip of the hat goes to prop designer Daniel Katz [ CORRECTION: Steve Tolin, special effects ] for creating the unfortunate animal who becomes one with the asphalt as well the corpses that eventually cover the stage. When Davey energetically takes a bolt cutter to these works of art, the moment is stomach churning in its realism.
As McDonagh puts it in one of oh-so-many gems that pock the dialogue: "It's incidents like this what put the tourists off Ireland." To which we'll add that it's plays like this that make BJ Jones and Northlight Theatre absolutely indispensable.