A pair of dark and compelling offerings at Burbage and Gamm

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Murder and mayhem make for mad mischief, considerable catharsis and even a little self-reflection and meditation in two Rhode Island theatrical productions right now that are each worth a look. One is Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” being performed by The Burbage Theatre Company of Providence the other is The Gamm’s production of “A Skull In Connemara” by contemporary Playwright Martin McDonagh. Each are, in very different ways, very dark and absolutely outrageous, both are utterly compelling evenings of theater.

An early tragedy of the Bard’s, “Titus” is one of the least performed plays in the canon, As the play’s director, Burbage Atistic Director Jeff Church explained before the show, this is only the 2nd production ever in RI. The verse is lurid and purple, the body count is high and the onstage maiming and bloodshed is copious. These bloody revenge tragedies were the big box office hit of the day and young Will here enters this fray swinging and slashing with the verve of a Quentin Tarrantino, both mastering and mocking this form. What we witness in “Titus”, which this production makes abundantly clear, is a both a young playwright’s disdain for the tropes of his time and a cunning use of this formula; played out here is the inevitable though fantastic extension of all that lust for power and the urge to avenge, especially in the realm of the political arena.

There is nothing new under the sun and the world of this play eerily mirrors aspects of our own. The words “Caesar is dead” are projected upon the back wall of Trevor Elliot’s austere and elegantly appointed set, and the game of thrones is on. A time of political upheaval is when the knives come out, either figuratively or literally, Shakespeare ritualizes and exorcises a society’s bloody strife, fully cognizant of how the lust for power, the urge for revenge and the perception of our enemies as inhuman fiends ultimately dehumanizes these participants.

The ends are achieved by pouring on gloriously violent excess, both in word and deed here and what astounds is how scarily plausible this all seems even as it descends into madness. We wholly buy into the outrageous extremes being enacted and this is due in no small part to the razor sharp clarity of the direction and the performances.

This production abounds with actors who seem born to perform Shakespeare’s verse. Rae Mancini commands the stage as Titus Andronicus and we accept the fact of a female in this warrior’s role without batting an eye. She’s a wellspring of volcanic action in the role, never losing her imperiousness as she make the verse visceral, pouring passion and powerful thought into the poetry.

Her chief adversary, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is well played by Christin Goff who nicely modulates the malice here, the sheer verve of her villainy smacks of both crafty rationalization and wicked relish.
In a show where at least some characters have to be somewhat sane, Roger Lemelin shines as the austere Marcus and he’s the stolid eye of the storm in these proceedings. Aaron Morris portrays forthright ferocity as Lucius. Allison Crews is haunting and heartbreaking as Lavinia.

As a pair of rival princes, Rico Lanni and Dillon Medina are well matched, I liked the sense of dilettante dandyism Lanni brought to his regal presence, Medina performs the verse with glittering precision and absolute earnestness.

Among the many relevant ironies of this old play is that it is a Moor named Aaron who is painted as the devil incarnate and threat to all. Jason Quinn’s portrayal recognizes here that he is the despised “other”, society’s convenient scapegoat and then proceeds to assume that role with considerable gusto. He delivers both the verse and a gleeful awareness of his own villainy with considerable aplomb. As another pair of villains James Lucey and Andrew Iacovelli combine to make their innate cruelty charismatic.
Director Jeff Church knows well that this big hot stew of revenge is a dish best cooked slowly and with direct heat. He lets the pot simmer here, allowing the outrageousness to slowly bubble, building to a boil over of excess that is engrossing and absolutely enthralling. For the faint of heart it ain’t, there are depictions of extreme cruelty onstage and considerable amounts of stage blood are squirted and spilled. But in an age where we have become desensitized to the enormity of barbarism in our modern world perhaps that’s what it takes to shake us up and deliver a cathartic punch. Here, violent sorrow becomes a modern ecstasy.

The sorrow that may turn violent and the evil that men may or may not do is an area of expertise for Irish Playwright Martin McDonagh. The dark recesses of the human heart is a terrain he knows well how to harrow and in a wee, sly way too. Like “Titus”, “A Skull In Connemara” tells a twisted tale, but quietly and with much more subtlety. There are many dark impulses contained here in Connemara but are no less tragic for being set to a smaller scale. McDonagh knows too how to spill blood but here dirt and bits of bone will suffice.

The Gamm Theatre has been, over the years, expert in creating vibrant productions of the works of McDonagh and “A Skull” is no exception. The play takes it’s title from a line in “Waiting For Godot” and is the third play in the “Leenane Trilogy”, the other two having been previously produced at The Gamm. Leenane is a tiny rural enclave where everybody knows each other all too well, or thinks that they do, and the misdeeds of the past lie hidden under the surface, waiting to be unearthed.

That this tale slowly but inexorably digs deeper and deeper to find a hidden truth it is all too fitting that our protagonist here, Mick Dowd, is a gravedigger. His task is to exhume old plots to make way for new and it is here that Mick does James Joyce one better. For if, as Stephen Dedalus said, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, then Mick takes literal cracks at village history, smashing to smithereens the bones of the past he unearths. Though he’d prefer not to truly awake but remain oblivious, liberally dosing himself with the local poteen.

Though there are dark matters at hand the play is uproariously and wickedly funny with plenty of surprises and a humor that Director Judith Swift slowly but surely spins out, knowing full well that you can’t rush an Irishman’s stories. McDonagh is a dab hand too at capturing the cross-talk banter of the rural Irish countryside and as we delve into matters more serious, the witty remarks and cutting jibes hit close to the heart. In the telling of this tale of local tragedy let the Shakespeareans wave their broadswords, the tongues of Connemara are sharper and more agile.

The look of the show is gorgeous too. The center stage cottage interior of Michael McGarty’s set seems to glow from the smoky embers of its hearth the resulting warmth seems carved out of the surrounding darkness, graves and gloom. This authenticity is well matched by the fine cast assembled here.

Jim O’Brien is splendid as Mick Dowd. He’s marked by a gruff and mordant humor onstage and whatever he might or might not have done, you believe wholeheartedly in his beliefs. Wendy Overly is marvelous as a cagey and conniving Maryjohnny Rafferty. The almost requisite dim bulb type to be found in the plays of McDonagh is played here to perfection by Jonathan Fisher. Steve Kidd excels as a doltish and preening bully of a constable.

The characters of each of these fine shows seek to revise their history on scales grand and small. One heaps on the horrors, the other recognizes that one small moment of regret is enough to encompass a lifetime of horror. Each in their own way serves to purge the soul, affords a glimpse of the outrageousness we’re capable of and offers a reflection of our deeper, darker natures.

“Titus Andronicus” at The Burbage Theatre Company, Providence, through March 18; “A Skull In Connemara” at The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, through March 27.

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