Theater doubles up on McDonagh

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, the theater community has its sights on bringing a slice of the Green Isle to Yale, in the form of two shows by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.

Two plays by McDonagh, “A Skull in Connemara” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” opened as independent student productions on Wednesday. The directors of the two shows, the first and second parts of the Leenane Triology, said McDonagh’s work holds strong appeal for them, enabling an exploration of ideas in a way many other scripts fail to do.

Hunter Wolk ’12, who is directing “Beauty Queen,” said that because audiences often are not as familiar with McDonagh’s work as they are with shows by lyricists and playwrights such as Stephen Sondheim or William Shakespeare, the director has more room to present his own vision of the story.

“If you’re putting up ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘Hamlet,’ everyone in the audience knows what happens,” Wolk said. “They come to see how you choose to tell it, and it’s your responsibility to justify the decision to retell it at all.”

But with McDonagh’s work, Wolk added, audience members often arrive without prior expectations, simply prepared to hear a “great story.” Set in the same small Irish town, “Beauty Queen” and “A Skull in Connemara” focus on family dramas and moral dilemmas.

Austin Trow ’12, the director of “A Skull in Connemara,” said McDonagh’s scripts present to audiences a type of black humor that works well on a college campus. His comedy is so dark, Trow added, that audiences leaves questioning why they are even laughing.

“McDonagh’s plays are funny and they’re smart, so they appeal to a college audience,” he said.

For actors, too, the Irish playwright’s style has a certain draw: Ryan Bowers ’14, who plays Ray in “Beauty Queen,” said he has enjoyed performing in a McDonagh play because of its clear, spare depictions of people. McDonagh makes the intentions of the four characters in the play very clear, without adding any “fluff,” Bowers added.

Though McDonagh’s plays are popular among actors and audiences, their staging can be a serious challenge to directors, said Trow and Wolk. The Western Irish accents were particularly difficult for actors to master, said Trow, who noted that “Beauty Queen” and “A Skull in Connemara” are both set in a region where the accent differs from the Dunland accent most people associate with Ireland.

“We had a brief session [on accents] with someone from the School of Drama and had to use a lot of resources online,” Trow added. The cast, he said, “spent a lot of time listening to tapes of people from Western Ireland.”

Wolk added that in addition to the difficult accents, the need for stage blood, prosthetic effects and Complan, a powdered milk supplement imported from Australia to use as a prop, have been a “nightmare” for his production.

Despite the difficulties in production, “Beauty Queen” seeks to leave its audience with a sense of having heard a story that is relatably human and true.

“Maybe that sounds silly, but that’s all I want to do when I see a play or a movie,” said Wolk, for whom “Beauty Queen” is a second foray into directing on campus.

The production manages to find very deep and very intense drama in mundane settings, revealing powerful feelings in an otherwise unremarkable situation, Bowers said.

“You come in and have your perspective completely shifted by how bizarre the action is,” Trow said of “A Skull in Connemara.” “It really encourages you to question how you think about things like family relationships.”

He added that the production’s audiences are likely to be left grateful for the world they live in and with a sense of the broad spectrum of human experience. Trow noted, for instance, that audiences may find the way McDonagh’s Irish villagers treat their dead as “funny, violent and really surprising.”

The last stagings of both productions will take place at 8 p.m. tonight.

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