Situated on their two-year-old permanent home on Broadway in Glendale, CA, Antaeus Theatre Company has been focused on the creation of an ensemble theatre company equal to any other in the world since its founding in 1991. This actor-driven company focuses on the classics and each production is partner-cast [two completely different sets of actors perform the play on different nights]. This past Sunday afternoon I and a nearly full house were treated to The Fripple Frapples cast in the company’s production of The Cripple Of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh [they and their sister cast The Yalla-Mallows’ are also named for sweets [aka candy] that are the focus of at least one character over the course of the play].
Award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh may be remembered by most for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri–a film that stirred both controversy and high praise–but those who know his works for the stage are already aware that he is thought of as provocative, known for finding the humor in the darkest moments and starkest choices human beings can inflict upon one another. Set in 1934, The Cripple Of Inishmaan (Inis Meáin) is a fine example of this, centering as it does on a small community of men and women who have little to do beyond just merely surviving and nothing much to reach for until word comes via the town gossip Johnnypateenmike [JD Cullum] that an American film crew has come to the Western Coast of Ireland to make a movie.
When brutish Helen [Abby Wilde], whose favorite pastime is “pegging eggs” at anyone who might ignite her ire [it doesn’t seem to take much] and her much abused brother Bartley [Joey Millin] inform “poor” Cripple Billy [Matthew Grondin] that they’ve arranged for Babbybobby [Seamus Dever] to row them across the water to Inishmore (Inis Mór) in search of Hollywood fame and glory, Cripple Billy [as everyone has come to call him] is desperate to join. He is afraid of the water since his parents drowned when he was a baby in an incident that has been veiled in mystery, yet he approaches Babbybobby on the shore with a note from Doctor McSharry [Phil Proctor] stating Billy has tuberculosis and mere months to live. Babbybobby’s wife died not that long ago from the same condition and he is moved to agree to help Billy, no matter how negatively this might impact Billy’s adopted Aunts Kate [Kitty Swink] and Eileen [Mary-Pat Green].
When Billy doesn’t return, Kate and Eileen worry ceaselessly, pushing Kate to a near nervous breakdown as she reverts to talking to a rock while Eileen digs into their stores’ sweets stock, eating Yalla-Mallows for comfort. Helen is furious with Billy when she hears the film producers have chosen to take him back to Hollywood for a screen test. Johnnypateenmike is driven almost mad in his quest to discover from Doctor McSharry what disease Billy might have contracted even going so far as to use his Mammy [Anne Gee Byrd in a delightful scene-stealing role] to keep the Doctor in his home while he slips Mammy liquor, openly hoping she’ll drink herself to death.
As each character struggles with their own complicated shades of guilt, desire, longing, or [in Helen’s case] rage at Billy for leaving, Billy struggles with his new reality post-escape from the only home he’s ever known and though the humor is ever-present, we sense tragedy looms in the near future for all concerned. The play doesn’t offer us a simple picture of what it means to reach for a dream for the effort “Cripple” Billy makes to find a new life for himself delivers more pain and heartache than he might have ever imagined while his own assessment of Babbybobby as being one of, if not the only, good men in the village is proven wrong in a visceral fashion. The characters we are tempted to least admire–Johnnypateenmike and Helen–end up being the ones we might have the most reason to honor as honest and true in ways that are not simple on any level. These are interesting and important characters that challenge our concept of what it means to be considered likable, what we might define as a hero, and what the cost of a dream might be. And they are funny to watch–the things they say will make you wince and chuckle in spite of yourself.
Antaeus doesn’t have a huge stage to work with but they make beautiful use of what they have. The moment you lay eyes on the set, you can almost smell the sea air and feel the damp stones against your skin. Set designer John Iacovelli has succeeded with many lovely details found throughout the space to transport us back in time and co-lighting and projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson compliment this illusion quite well. The costumes designed by Garry D. Lennon are both evocative of a dream of the period as they are true to their time and fitting for each character’s personality. Sound designer Jeff Gardner’s work all but disappears as it blends with the actors and their environment, which creates a beautiful sensory treat. Props designer Erin Walley and dialect coach Lauren Lovett complete the world with their work. The production stage manager is Jessaica Shields and the production is directed by Steven Robman. In a time when we are tempted to feel less and less connected to the people around us, a tale such as this one can remind us of all that can be good and all that can be suffocating in a small community with no cell phones or streaming to tempt us away from the realities of life.
For reservations and information, call 818-506-1983 or go to www.antaeus.org.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.