“Connemara” surprises with grave humor

In “A Skull in Connemara,” main character Mick (Peter Kaufman ’12) instructs Mairtin (Charlie Kelly ’14) in his Irish brogue, “Don’t be cursin’ … not when you’re handling the departed now,” promptly before crushing a pile of bones with his shoe. Such is the dark, ironic humor this play shoulders from the beginning: a morbid tongue-in-cheek that grows with each line. This absurdity is what comes back to delight the audience, but the verbal volleys leave enough room for the show’s tension to pull through.

“Connemara” zooms into the lives of four characters in small-town Ireland. Beginning in Mick’s living room, the quick dialogue propels the plot and outlines the characters. Mick, we learn, has a grim task: emptying graves in the overcrowded churchyard to make room for the newly dead. Boyish and profane Mairtin is tasked with helping Mick clear the graves. Their jabs and insults reveal the central conflict: Mick has been assigned to empty the grave of his wife, who died in a car accident with Mick at the wheel. This awkward situation has again sparked the town’s whispers: Did Mick’s wife really die from the crash … or did Mick kill her? Though the question of Mick’s innocence taunts throughout, this play is not primarily a murder mystery but rather a twisting, turning look into these characters’ lives.

“Connemara” is performed on a central wooden platform surrounded by audience members. Exhibiting the action “in the round” allows the audience to feel enclosed and intimate with the characters — but also slightly voyeuristic, like peeking in at this thin slice of life. “It’s a drama that mostly takes place inside a house, and we want people to feel really intimate … to feel like they were right in the space,” director Austin Trow ’12 explained. “Doing it in the round makes it more exciting to watch, and having [the play] on just one side cut people off.”

But this is not the only noticeable design move. In the first scene, the set is a shabby sitting room. In the next scene, the lighting cools, and trapdoors are propped up to serve as gravestones. The back-and-forth from Mick’s living room to the graveyard ties into a greater exploration within “Connemara”: the blurred line between death and a desolate life. This point is not the most explicit, but as Kaufman explains, the set’s duality emphasizes it. “They’re two radically different settings,” Kaufman said. “We needed something to blend the two spaces; that’s why there’s dirt all over the floor. The graveyard kind of is [Mick’s] house and the house is the graveyard … It’s a show about death and desolation, so [this] makes sense.”

This recurring presence of death in every element of the play is a repeated high point. Everyone expecting another dense, serious murder story will be jarred from this beaten path five minutes into the show. When Mick snappishly jokes about what he does with the bodies he unearths, audience members get the hint that they have permission to laugh at death. The light, rollicking treatment of death has an effect that is dark, bizarre — and hilarious: after digging up corpses, Mick and Mairtin analyze the merits of choking on vomit versus choking on urine. At times, the play’s understated humor even peaks to pure glee; audiences won’t forget the scene in which Mick and Mairtin use mallets to demolish the skeletons. Rowdy, biting dialogue continues as bone shrapnel flies, keeping in check the scene’s unabashed humor.

The jokes themselves could easily have been brash, but the actors wear their humor lightly. Tom’s ridiculousness is never quite believable, but Klein delivers each sentence with measure — he stays in control and takes his time so that audience members can feel the full force of his character’s offhanded absurdity. Mick and Mairtin have chemistry as they slide between tense arguments and outlandish quips (“Shall we teach them skulls a lesson?” “Sure you can’t teach skulls lessons; they have no brain to be stickin’ the lesson.”) These seamless transitions can partially credit the versatility of Mick’s character, who with a few words in each scene, manages to give a glimpse into his underlying turmoil.

From far away, the play does not overreach. Although the action takes place in a span of a few days, the verbal exposition builds enough room for the characters to develop and tension to build. But the play has crammed moments. The quick dialogue, crucial to the play, is sometimes overshadowed by movement: the rocking of the shovels, the occasional turned back of a character. Add to all of this an Irish accent, and the effect can be too chaotic.

The sheer bathos of “Connemara” cannot be matched — each point of tension is followed by a cold dash of absurd humor. The play will certainly make audiences shift in their seats — if not from the weirdness of it all, then at least to avoid the flying pieces of femur.

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