Unlikely warmth in 'Inishmaan'; odd 'Sandman'

"The Cripple of Inishmaan" 

Martin McDonagh's sardonic portraits of rural Irish village life take the happy-go-lucky and comradely eccentrics made popular in films such as "Waking Ned Devine" and put them through an acid wash, revealing all the pettiness and cruelty that is possible when people live in reduced — and far too close — circumstances. But occasionally, McDonagh allows his characters flashes of fellow feeling. Kimberly Senior's intimate staging of "The Cripple of Inishmaan" for Redtwist Theatre brings those strands of stunted compassion to the foreground in a way that was lacking from the Druid Theatre's magisterial production at Chicago Shakespeare last year.

It's 1934, and the tiny isle of Inishmaan is atizzy with news that Hollywood has come calling: filmmaker Robert Flaherty (who directed the documentary "Nanook of the North") has arrived to shoot "Man of Aran," a part-fiction, part-fact look at the hardscrabble lives on the rocky shores and dangerous seas of the Aran Islands. For sensitive handicapped orphan Billy Claven (Josh Salt), known colloquially as "Cripple Billy," the film provides an escape hatch from the gibes of the locals and the boredom of a world where watching cows is the highlight of his day.

But this being McDonagh's Ireland, Billy's winning lottery ticket to La-La Land doesn't play out as he imagines. The consequences aren't nearly as grim here as in "The Pillowman," McDonagh's dark look at a tortured writer, which got a transcendent production at Redtwist under Senior's hand a couple of years ago. Her cast, despite some uneven dialects, generally finds some breathing room between the mordant quips to quietly capture the ceaseless drudgery and blighted hopes of the characters. Jack Magaw's stone-cottage set and sickish lighting suggest the cheerless confines of these lives.

Salt's Billy reveals flashes of calculation. Despite his broken body, he's not entirely a figure of pathos. As Eileen and Kate, the two women who have fostered him since infancy, Debra Rodkin and Jan Ellen Graves provide well-crafted takes on two cliches of Irish womanhood: the wisecracking earth mother and the moony mystic. Brian Parry's tiresome gossip, Johnnypateenmike, blends gassy self-importance with the naked need for communal affirmation, and Kathleen Ruhl nearly steals the show as "Mammy."

"You shouldn't laugh at other people's misfortunes," Billy admonishes one of his peers. "Why?" is the bewildered response. Senior's take on McDonagh's fractious and loquacious yokels provides a decent amount of laughs, but it's the glancing moments of offhanded kindness that breathe some warmth into this unsentimental tale of dashed dreams and duplicity.

Through June 24 at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; $25-$30 at redtwist.org

"The Sandman" 

The world of E.T.A. Hoffmann isn't all nutcrackers and mouse kings. In 1816's "The Sandman," he penned a nightmarish story about doppelgangers, childhood fantasies, alchemy, automatons and paranoia. In other words, catnip to writer Bob Fisher of the company The Mammals and director Max Truax, who have teamed up to bring Hoffmann's fractured fairy tale to Oracle Productions. (Don't confuse this story with Neil Gaiman's monumental graphic-novel series.)

It's disorienting, transfixing and — for those who crave narrative clarity — occasionally frustrating. But it's also unlike anything else you'll see this summer. Truax, a master of off-kilter perspectives, incorporates puppetry (designed by Tracy Otwell) and live-feed video (designed by Ben Fuchsen) into the story of anguished Nathaniel (Christopher Hart), a young student who is convinced he is being haunted and hunted by an incarnation of the evil Coppelius, who presumably killed his father. His fiancee, Clara, and her brother, Lothaire, are skeptical about Nathaniel's claims.

A subplot about Olympia, the too-good-to-be-real daughter of Nathaniel's university mentor, adds further mystery to the proceedings. With four actors playing 10 roles, it's not always easy to track what's happening. Reading the story first wouldn't be a bad idea if you want to get the full flavor. Fisher and Truax generally remain faithful to the fever-dream atmosphere and pre-Freudian hysteria of Hoffmann's tale. Among the quartet of actors, lithe and hypnotic Simina Contras is a knock-out in the dual roles of Clara and Olympia, while Karen Thompson's stark but suggestive lighting almost becomes a character unto itself.

Through June 30 at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway; free, reservations at oracletheatre.org

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