‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’ gets the blood going


Whether they loved it or loathed it, critics appear to agree on one thing about Martin McDonagh’s black comedy “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” the Mark Taper Forum’s current offering: It’s the goriest play they’ve ever seen. The Times’ Charles McNulty wrote about “violence, torture and a tidal wave of bloodshed.” The word “carnage” pops up often in reviews.

As Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie wrote of his first reaction to the Broadway production of “Inishmore”: “I literally remember thinking, ‘…you are NOT going to do that… you’re not really going to do what I think you are about to… are you??? You ARE? Oh my God I’m so glad you did.’”

Violence certainly isn’t new to the theater. “The unkindest cut of all” — Brutus’ stabbing of Caesar in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” –—still resonates, but you’re not likely to see it dramatized with stage blood by the gallons.


Indeed, “Inishmore’s” director, Wilson Milam, and his designers of special effects and props were weaned as much on Sam Peckinpah’s films as they were on Thornton Wilder’s plays, which invite audience members to use their imaginations to fill in the visual gaps. No such heavy mental lifting is required by movies, which often delight in the gore ballet that attends violent scenes.

“Inishmore,” a black comedy about Irish terrorism, pointedly mocks the violent reality of that world with a bloodbath so extreme that it’s shockingly funny

No wonder the Seattle-born, U.K.-based Milam is more likely to be compared to Quentin Tarantino than to peers in the theater. Milam directed the original production in London, which won an Olivier Award, as well as the one at New York’s Atlantic Theatre, which moved to Broadway, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.

“This plot is relentless,” Milam says. “It’s one of the reasons I like the script. It is plot-driven like a movie. Martin’s experience was watching movies, as is mine. We talked about film noir and Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, John Woo.”

Film buffs will notice homages to all three in “Inishmore,” he says. A scene in which three characters are pointing guns at each other, knowing only two will die, was inspired by Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Materials to create all the mayhem can really add up; for each performance, the Taper goes through 121 rounds of blank ammunition from 36 clips fired by 20 guns, and eight gallons of stage blood.

“It used to be six,” says Jonathan Lee, the Taper’s production manager. “Wilson wanted more.”

The stage blood is fine-tuned depending on where it lands: Blood that falls on the dark floor, for example, needs to be darker than the substance that spurts onto white window shades, so for each performance, a crew member adds 125 drops of blue food coloring to each gallon.

That may sound tedious, but Taper crew members can consider themselves lucky that their budget accommodates commercial stage blood. The Atlantic Theater Company had to whip up its own recipe, using chocolate syrup, peanut butter and food coloring.

“The only downside is the organic matter,” says Waldo Warshaw, the special effects designer for all of the “Inishmore” productions, which also includes one at Houston’s Alley Theatre. “When you cover a set with six gallons of ‘blood,’ there’s going to be sticky residue in the cracks, so they had roaches. It was New York.”

By the end of the evening, virtually the entire stage is covered with blood, and all of it must be entirely removed after each performance. Fortunately, the Taper incorporated a drain beneath the stage as part of a $30-million renovation completed in 2008, so the stage crew can hose it down. But the task is so massive — involving cleaning the guns and other props, washing clothes and curtains and replacing window shades — that it takes five crew members two hours to fully clean the stage and then dress it for the next performance. On matinee days, when there’s less time until the next show, six people pitch in to complete the job in an hour and a half.

Filmmakers, who don’t have to create carnage night after night, don’t have those headaches. Thanks to computers and other technology, they have other advantages too when it comes to creating special effects. But onstage, everything happens in front of the audience in real time.

So Warshaw, who has also worked in film, uses what he calls “the pretty girl technique” to distract the audience enough to create his special effects. “I’ve had several clients of mine who are magicians, so I cannot give away any secrets,” he says. “But basically it’s misdirection.”

He has also created equipment to make it safer for actors to be “shot.” Warshaw’s Det-Less Bloodhit System uses compressed air instead of explosives to spurt stage blood from an actor’s body. His patented system can shoot blood using wireless remote controls.

Gun handling onstage still carries risks, even though the actors shoot blanks. “There are some very dangerous things that are happening onstage,” Warshaw says. “They’re real guns firing blanks. They’re modified so you can’t put in a full metal jacket, a real bullet, just a blank shell with powder. The danger is that even though you fire without a projectile coming out, powder is coming out of the end of the barrel. A lot of care is taken so that no one gets powder shot at their face.” Fight director Steve Rankin carefully designed actors’ placement and gun handling moves to prevent powder burns.

Also tricky is the 45-second blackout for five stagehands to dress the stage for the play’s goriest scene.

“Wilson was keen that the blackout was complete, so we installed in the Taper a mechanism that allows an electrician, who’s on guard, to turn off the aisle lights temporarily,” Lee says. “We couldn’t turn off exit signs, so we have ushers in capes carrying [solid] black picket signs — they look like Darth Vader — covering the exit signs with placards, so we have a complete blackout.”

Navigating the treacherous multi-level stage, designed to evoke rocky terrain, in the dark required numerous rehearsals, first with light and later with night-vision goggles. Stagehands with goggles are on hand to guide the actors into position.

Another scene that has many audience members squirming every night is one in which the lieutenant, played by Chris Pine, tortures a drug dealer portrayed by Brett Ryback, who hangs upside down, bound at his ankles, 30 feet above the stage, for 11 minutes. . Ryback says he worked up to it gradually over 51/2 weeks, but he still needs 20 minutes to recover. “My sinuses are blocked and I have pressure behind my eyes and head,” he says. “They’ve given me an ice mask to relieve puffiness in my face and I sit for 10 minutes.”

As for critics who were gobsmacked by the gore, Warshaw says he was “amused by it, but I didn’t want them to walk out and think that’s what ‘Inishmore’ was about. ‘Inishmore’ is a great story, and it’s funny. My little addition to it is just a little salt and pepper. It’s not the meat and potatoes.”