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Monday, July 31, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ACT digs up laughs, suspense in grisly `Skull In Connemara'

Seattle Times theater critic

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Theater review

"A Skull in Connemara" by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 20 at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. $10-42. 206-292-7676.

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The word "smashed" has a double meaning in Martin McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara," now getting a bang-up American premiere at A Contemporary Theatre.

There's "smashed," as in stinking drunk - the fate of several of the play's West Ireland characters as they tipple poteen, a fiery Irish moonshine.

And there's "smashed" as in what happens to some "dearly departed" citizens of rural Leenane, whose remains are not always treated with (to say the least) great respect.

By the time McDonagh treats us to the horrifying, hilarious spectacle of actual bone-crunching, it's clear "A Skull in Connemara" is truly a comedy - a laugh-out-loud howler that both exhumes and demolishes many cliches of traditional Irish drama, with a lot of au courant grisliness and irreverence ground in for good measure.

Though there are serioous moments, too, this is the slightest of the three "Leenane Trilogy" scripts, which catapulted Anglo-Irish playwright McDonagh to prominence in the '90s. Both "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (seen earlier at Seattle Repertory Theatre) and "The Lonesome West" (which ran recently on Broadway) pack more of a primal whammy.

But "Connemara" confirms McDonagh as a force to be reckoned with - a playwright both "pre-modern and postmodern" in one critic's words, with an acute ear for Irish wordplay, and a gene-deep sense of irony. He's also a cunning craftsman whose echoes of Pinter and Mamet, Beckett and Shakespeare, Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, American TV cop shows and Grand Guignol create a singular dynamic resonance.

In director Gordon Edelstein's smartly paced, smashingly acted staging, Mick (played with a shambling wariness by Kevin Tighe) is a haunted widower who scrapes together a living each fall by digging up bodies in the local cemetery to make room for new corpses.

This autumn Mick has a hapless graveyard helper in Mairtin (terrific Andrew McGinn), a screw-loose, small-time delinquent with far more bravado than brain matter. Two other locals take a keen interest in Mick's labors: a suspicious policeman, Thomas (Christopher Evan Welch), who believes the death of Mick's spouse several years past was no accident, and a meddling old woman with a yen for bingo and poteen, Maryjohnny (Zouanne LeRoy).

Thomas is Mairtin's older brother, and Maryjohnny is their grandmother. And as in McDonagh's other plays, it's the family ties in Ireland that not only bind, but choke. The familial claustrophobia also extends to David Gallo's remarkable set design, which turns the graves of the ancestral dead into an oppressive roof over the living.

"A Skull in Connemara" (the title quotes Beckett's "Waiting for Godot") begins with the glumly reflexive living-room banter Mick and Maryjohnny have been shoveling for years. It soon explodes into blistering insult humor and macabre slapstick.

In a cemetery scene a la "Hamlet," skulls are mused over and toyed with, a fraternal spat results in a tumble into an occupied plot, a lost love is mourned and plundered.

There's also enough of a mystery unearthed to scare up a bit of suspense for the last act - which, if anything, is even more morbid and antic, and as rife with icky-funny potty humor as any Farrelly Brothers flick. There's an eruption of gore, too, but it ends on a comic twist right out of J.M. Synge's iconic Irish comedy, "The Playboy of the Western World."

Throughout, ACT's cast members play off one another as adeptly as Irish fiddler Martin Hayes and guitarist Dennis Cahill, who are heard on tape performing Hayes' fitting original music for the show.

Though older than the bemused, tormented Mick needs to be, Tighe brings admirable nuance to the role, which he wears as convincingly as the old tweed jacket in which costumer Susan Hilferty has clad him.

LeRoy excelled as the reviled Irish crone in the Rep's "Beauty Queen of Leenane," and she's just as good in a similar part here. As helter-skelter Mairtin, McGinn is just astonishing, by turns pathetic, obnoxious, venal and boyishly sentimental.

And former Seattle favorite Welch returns to deliver a superb comic turn, adroitly capturing the beady-eyed ambition of Thomas, a petty bungler with big dreams.

Ultimately, one can read into "A Skull of Connemara": a) a study of Irish dysfunctionality; b) a parody of ghoulish horror flicks; c) a disaffected scan of a godless age when nothing's sacred, all is tainted.

Whichever you choose, the play is an entertaining, provocative piece of skulduggery from a writer who is helping to re-energize the English-speaking stage.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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