In Antaeus’ ‘Cripple of Inishmaan,’ humor collides with an Irish hard edge

Handicapped Billy Claven (Ian Littleworth) dreams of a life better lived off of Ireland’s desolate Aran Islands in Martin McDonagh’s “Cripple of Inishmaan.” Antaeus’ production of the provocative play is running until March 11.
(Geoffrey Wade Photography)

There was a lot to be down about on Ireland’s far-flung Aran Islands in the mid-1930s. Inhabitants at the time navigated a terrain of mostly stone, mud and hard knocks.

Yet Martin McDonagh’s 1998 play “Cripple of Inishmaan” about a small community on one of the islands in that era, is a comedy — albeit a pitch-black one.

Effectively melding hard edge and hilarity — “that drew me to it, as a job to do” — is Steven Robman, who is directing Antaeus’ Theatre’s production of the play opening on Thursday in Glendale.

He pitched the challenge to himself rhetorically: “Can you make those two oddly conflicting ideas, the nastiness and the humor, work together?”

Driving the play’s narrative is a real-life event — the arrival of a Robert Flaherty-headed Hollywood film crew on a neighboring island in 1934.

In Inishmaan, where a goose biting a cat counts as news, the inhabitants are consumed with excitement — especially handicapped Billy Claven, who hopes he can land a part in the film and, most importantly, a ticket off the dreary island.

In a recent preview performance, Ian Littleworth portrayed Claven as anything but helpless, despite his bad leg and bad arm. Like everyone else on the island, Claven uses guile, brash determination and ample expletives — often at the expense of others — to, if not thrive, survive. Even his affected limp has a sort of swagger to it.

All Antaeus roles are double cast, and Claven is portrayed by Matthew Grondin in alternate performances.

Local kid Bartley (Sebastian Fernandez) seriously deliberates over which “sweeties” to buy from shopkeeper Eileen (Julia Fletcher).
(Geoffrey Wade Photography)

Snippets of Flaherty’s semifictional documentary, “Man of Aran,” punctuate the performance. In a meta flourish, the characters aren’t gripped, or convinced, by what’s supposed to be an authentic depiction of their lives when they finally watch the finished film.

Writer McDonagh, who is British and Irish, told Bomb magazine in 1998 that he hoped his stories would one day be read as “true Irish stories,” but acknowledged it might take some time for people to come around. And yet truth is elusive and ever-shifting in the play, with history constantly readjusting itself depending on who’s telling it and who’s listening.

“This play is about storytelling in a lot of ways, people making up stories, misrepresenting things, mythologizing themselves,” Robman said. “And I found that to be a very interesting matrix on which to put a bunch of characters.”

Nine characters make up the cast, and sometimes they’re all on stage at once. When they are, it’s a full house, as Robman put it, referring to the theater’s moderately sized stage.

Add in the fact that those characters — including an elderly, alcoholic woman and an egg-throwing school girl — frequently converse in coarse, rural Irish slang (think: “Ya feckin’ eejit!”), and the production may not be be for the especially faint of heart.

Claven’s adoptive aunts, Kate, played by Rhonda Aldrich in the recent preview performance, and Eileen, played by Julia Fletcher, are notable for injecting a sliver of earnestness into the character’s biting back-and-forths, despite having silver-tinged tongues of their own.

In spite or because of all the roughness, the audience at the preview performance laughed loud and often.

To “make it work,” Robman said rehearsals focused on building up character traits, to make actions seem natural or honest.

“In this case, the violence is earned,” Robman said, “And when it’s earned because it’s honest, the audience will understand it better and not to sort of look away and say, ‘What are these idiots doing, bashing each other?’”

Antaeus Theatre’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” will run until March 11 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center.

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Twitter: @lila_seidman