The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a lighthearted political satire that features four murders, two toenail-pullings, one near-miss nipple amputation, the brains of two cats, six punctured eyeballs, many severed limbs, and something like nine gallons of blood. It's a Grand Guignol explosion of death, violence, and body fluids that fuses big laughs with big-picture politicking. There are moments when it is unclear whether we should think, laugh, or gag.
This is the kind of happy confusion that GableStage exists to create: comedy that is drama, jokes that are statements, brutality that is charming. Which means playwright Martin McDonagh is something like a gift to Joe Adler, GableStage's executive artistic director. Like Adler, McDonagh is smart, sick, and funny. Counting Lieutenant, both of GableStage's best productions from the past year have been McDonagh gigs. The other, The Pillowman, was a dark tale set in an unspecified police state in which a writer is brutally tortured because the child murders depicted in his stories have begun taking place in the real world. There were shades of history in that piece — of the imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade, of Oscar Wilde's trials — but its central questions were abstract, dealing with brotherly love, sacrifice, and art. The Lieutenant's concerns are more grounded in the real world even while the play itself is vastly more absurd.
The grisly chain reaction in The Lieutenant is set off by the death of a pet on a lonely road, somewhere in the Aran Islands in 1993. In the opening scene, Erik Fabregat's long-haired, teenaged, and terminally befuddled Davey and Ken Clement's loutish Donny are staring in terror at a black, dead cat lying on a kitchen table. Davey insists the cat was dead when he found it, just lying there in the street with its brains oozing out. Donny would prefer to believe Davey killed that cat. He wants someone to pin the death on, and with good reason. The cat belongs to Donny's son, Padraic (Todd Allen Durkin), a terrorist so violent and bloodthirsty that the IRA wouldn't take him. Padraic cares about only two things: a free Ireland and his kitty, Wee Thomas. Of course, tending to one necessitates ignoring the other, which is why he's entrusted Donny with the cat's well-being while he's off bombing chip shops. Donny knows that unless something very weird happens, Wee Thomas' squishing will spell doom for all involved.
Donny decides not to deliver the bad news all at once. He contacts Padraic on his cell phone and informs him that Wee Thomas is looking, well, poorly. Padraic, who is at that moment torturing a petty drug dealer he's got suspended from the ceiling (Paul Homza, looking appropriately nervous), goes all to pieces. He frees his quarry and promises to rush home on the very first ferry.
Anybody who's been watching Durkin's remarkable string of manic performances over the past year will quickly get the feeling that this part was written especially for him. It wasn't, but that doesn't matter. Few actors in the history of the trade could toggle ideology-fueled bloodlust and boneless, face-crumpling grief with such facility or have so much fun doing it. When he storms into Donny's house the next morning only to discover a living, orange cat that Davey and Donny have covered in black shoe polish in an inane attempt to replace Wee Thomas, Durkin springs into sudden violence with terrible glee on his face — precisely the expression one would hope to see on someone who could be driven to multiple homicide by the death of a pet. A great deal of The Lieutenant's fun factor is found in the anticipation of awful carnage and in knowing that it will come courtesy of someone as flagrantly deranged as Durkin.
Despite these ominous beginnings, things don't work out the way one would expect. There is carnage aplenty, but it sneaks up from weird angles, and this is where one can feel the churning force of McDonagh's mutant intelligence. Wee Thomas' death, we learn, was a political killing, an attempt to get Padraic to lower his guard. It seems there is internecine war among the members of the Irish National Liberation Army, itself a splinter group, and Wee Thomas was but a pawn in their game. The INLA thugs, played by Stephen G. Anthony, Scott Genn, and Daniel Gomez, are nearly as mean as Padraic. So is Davey's kid sister, Mairead (Kim Morgan), a spunky, punky 16-year-old with stars and clover in her eyes and vicious aim with an air rifle.
When these people come together in Donny's little house, they trade a great deal of revolutionary blather before proceeding to blow each other's brains out. It's interesting to note how little any of it has to do with the English or with economics or religion or anything one would expect James Connolly's spiritual descendants to discuss. These rebels are disorganized; they nitpick about animal rights and splinters of splinter groups and whether smalltime drug dealers have any place in a liberated Ireland. Donny and Davey, the story's only unarmed characters, are stand-ins for the nonpolitical working people who are bullied and cowed by ideologues who allegedly fight on their behalf.
The fun and affection with which all of this is written and performed means GableStage's Lieutenant is, above all else, a love letter to Ireland. Still, the fact that everyone in the play is either a bully or a sheep is an indictment. No matter how much he loves his parents' country, McDonagh's got his gripes, and he knows how to voice them.
There is a moment near the end of the play when two survivors of the last act's gratuitous slaughter, surrounded by dismembered corpses and reduced to taking orders from a gun-toting 16-year-old girl, see a healthy cat wander into the room. The two begin talking quietly about all the trouble felines have caused them of late and quickly decide that this cat deserves to die. When the men declare their intention to kill it, it is very nearly the point of the whole show; a dumb and brutal reaction against powerlessness — precisely like all the other explosions of dumb brutality that have splattered the stage over the previous two hours. It is a clear distillation of the mindset McDonagh must have seen at the heart of much of Ireland's grief over the years — and everybody else's too.