These days, the Yale Dramatic Association must walk an “imaginary line between mainstream appeal and artistic value,” said Lisa Holme ’05, the Dramat’s production officer.
Last year’s sold-out fall mainstage, “Batboy,” was a rock musical about a mutant and his adopted family. This spring’s mainstage — Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” — is a dark comedy about a crippled Irish boy that is a challenging mix of broad humor and social satire.
This spring, the Dramat will gamble twice. Not only is “Cripple’s” tone hit-or-miss, but for the first time in its century-long history, an undergraduate has been selected to produce the mainstage.
Cecilia Morelli ’04, a Yale theater veteran, will direct “Cripple.” Until this year, mainstages have been directed and designed by professionals, most of them with many years of experience.
This is no small honor. There are two mainstages a year that the Dramat board selects; they are the centerpiece of the season and are lavishly funded (this year’s budget is $5,000, with more to come from donations). Kelsey Lents ’05, a former Dramat board member, said that on the whole, mainstages are comparable — in scope and complexity — to a small show in New York. Many Dramat members said it would be difficult for an undergraduate to have the commanding presence of a professional. But, they said, Morelli is well-respected; she is a quick study and has a “creative intellect.”
No matter how well-regarded Morelli is, “Cripple” is difficult material. The play opened to mixed reviews: when it was staged in the West End, British critics called the play insightful, and McDonagh a major talent. But on Broadway, many Americans were baffled by the play’s erratic tone and lack of intellectual coherence.
“Cripple,” Irish through-and-through, will be a challenge to stage at Yale.
The play explores the life of an abandoned and unloved boy named Cripple Billy, who lives in a cut-off little village. The villagers are a vicious bunch. Just because he limps, Billy is the town pariah. He longs to escape the taunts, and when a famous documentary filmmaker arrives, Billy hitches a ride to Hollywood for a screen test (Hollywood, he thinks, being a kinder town).
“It’s heavily dark humor,” Caroline Van Zile ’06, the show’s producer, said.
But Morelli might be the right person to hand the delicate humor of “Cripple.” She and McDonagh have similar sensibilities and biographies.
McDonagh is a theater prodigy who professes to be bored by theater. In interviews, he claims to have seen few plays and says his major influences are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese. Morelli, too, said she is heavily consumed and influenced by film.
“I have not read many plays at all,” she said. “I have probably read a third, a quarter of plays [my peers] have read.”
But she said she is also engaged in the work of filmmakers like Neil Jordan. In turn, Morelli sees plenty of Neil Jordan — and Tarantino and even James Joyce — in McDonagh’s work.
Both Morelli and McDonagh are artistic expatriates. McDonagh grew up and lives in London, but his parents are Irish, and he has carved himself a place in contemporary Irish drama. Morelli is from London, too, but she has immersed herself in New York cinema; her parents are Italian and French.
“I would come home and my father would be swearing in Italian and my mother would be quoting Proust,” she said.
“Cripple” will be, in Van Zile’s words, a “melting pot of a production” — a British take on Irish culture, as interpreted by a Franco-Italian director and her cast of Americans.
Given this, will the production be a bewildering mess? The show has a good chance of succeeding if its director knows where to take it. And weeks from the first read-through, Morelli has a clear sense of where “Cripple” might go.
The play is, she said, a beautiful balance between comedy and tragedy, about “the crushing of the American dream” and the “push and pull relation between individuals, Ireland and America, fantasy and reality.” Like “Pulp Fiction,” it is a world where violence is a kind of narcotic.
She even has a color scheme in mind (although she is eager to hear what the designer has to say). There is, she says, an Irish palette: washed-out greens, pebble grays and prune, all smeared with fog.
Tricky as “Cripple” is, Morelli seems more passionate than nervous about the upcoming production, which holds auditions in two weeks. Then again, she seems worried about one thing.
“It’s so hard to make an audience laugh and cry in the same two hours,” she said.
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