Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Skull in Connemara

Playwright: Martin McDonagh

Venue:  Miner’s Alley Playhouse, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, Colorado, 80401.

Running time:  2 hours minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Sunday, April 23, 2017.

I don’t review every show I see.  Sometimes I go to the theater just to enjoy the performance, like everyone else in the audience.  Such was the case with A Skull in Connemara (hereafter Skull) at Miner’s Alley Playhouse in Golden.  I took my seat, relaxed, and waited to be entertained, and thoroughly entertained I was.  

Sometimes, the plan changes.  Skull is one of those shows that compels a reaction.  Mine takes the form of a blog post.

Irish story telling is legendary, and Mick Dowd is at the center of this fine if unusual Irish story.  The show opens with MaryJohnny (Carla Kaiser Kotrc) and Mick Dowd (Logan Ernstahl) arguing in the cold confines of Dowd’s hovel of a home.  Dowd pours himself a glass of homemade “Poitín” (Irish moonshine of nearly toxic strength).  Carla Kaiser Kotrc simmers as MaryJohnny, holding a grudge that others would have long forgotten.  Dowd is sick of the decades long grudge. 

I was hooked 2 minutes into the opening scene.  Dowd and MaryJohnny argue like an old married couple (they’re not) over the minutia of small town Irish gossip.  Both Kaiser Kotrc and Ernsthal have splendid Irish accents, wear tattered clothes and shake off the chill by lighting the fireplace.  The effect immediately transfers the audience from the foothills of Golden to the cold, bleak west coast of Ireland. 

It is in this cold, depressing Connemara shack that Martin McDonagh tells his story of sanctioned grave robbing.  Due to congestion in the local Catholic cemetery, the parish hires Mick Dowd for a week every year to exhume remains and make room for new burials.  Dowd gives the remains a proper burial at sea, but he’s not above taking some liberties in the process.  It’s a routine Dowd dutifully carries out, at least until he must dig up the remains of his late wife.  

Logan Ernsthal makes Dowd’s lingering guilt over his wife obvious.  “Drink driving” killed his wife, and Dowd was behind the wheel.  That’s ample guilt for anyone, but there’s more to the story.  Ernsthal hides the details deep inside and bristles when anyone casts “aspersions” on his story.  Whether he caused the “accident” is in unclear, but Ernsthal leaves no doubt that he may have done her in.  He confesses, in his bloodstained clothes, to beating Mairtin mercilessly in a fit of rage shortly after it happens.  Ernsthal makes the crime look normal, showing not an iota of guilt, fear or regret.

John Hauser (Mairtin Hanlon) is hired to help Mick this year and his portrayal of Mairtin is fearless.  Not once, but twice he does a face plant into a gravesite.  The second dive is spectacular; his impact raises a cloud of dust reminiscent of Charles Shultz’ character Pig-Pen.  That Hauser can even dive into a grave is a bit of theater magic.

Scenic Designer Jonathan Scott-McKean’s brilliant set makes McDonagh’s grave robbing real.  Scott-McKean baked in two eternal resting places at stage left so Mick can both dig up and refill graves with his spade.  The visual image is convincing, as Logan Ernsthal shovels hundreds of pounds of dirt to sell the story.  Ernsthal can cancel his gym membership during Skull’s run; he gets a strenuous workout at every performance.

Hilarity ensues when the skull is missing from Mick’s wife’s casket, setting off a domino of unpleasant developments for Mick.  To say what follows is dark comedy is an understatement.  It’s an 11 on a scale of 10, despite the fact that I experienced some self imposed guilt by laughing at McDonagh’s utter disrespect for both the clergy and the dead.

John Jankow is ambitious and insecure as Thomas Hanlon, the bumbling cop who knows more about the missing skull than he wants to tell.  Trading “aspersions” and “insuations" with Mick, Jankow displays more wit than we expect from Hanlon.  Jankow delivers a nuanced performance, demonstrating both the strengths and weaknesses of his character.   

The playwright has little use for decorum.  McDonagh shatters any respect one might have for the dead with a macabre imagination and his razor sharp wit.  He’s obviously well aware of the capacity of Catholics for guilt, and uses that guilt for his own literary and comedic purposes.  

McDonagh’s unflattering portrayal of rural Irish peasants is not without its critics; he has been accused of “paddywhackery.”  Those critics notwithstanding, McDonagh’s string of successful plays (Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lonesome West, A Beheading in Spokane, and The Hangmen) is ample proof of his talent as a playwright.  It’s hard to imagine a list of contemporary Irish playwrights that wouldn’t have McDonagh at the top.

Director Billie McBride (True West Award for 2016 Theatre Person of the Year) just keeps adding to her impressive résumé.  She is one of the most intense actors in Colorado, and she has wrung that same intensity from every member of the Skull cast.  McBride attacks McDonagh’s witty script, giving it a crackling interpretation that sticks with the audience long after they leave the theater.

This is a review that I didn’t expect to write.  It turned out to be a review I needed to write.  My change of heart is a direct result of Miner’s Alley Playhouse’s outstanding production of McDonagh’s superb script.

Top Photos:  John Hauser (Mairtin) and Logan Ernsthal (Mick Dowd).
Bottom left:  Carla Kaiser Kotrc (MaryJohnny).
Bottom right:  John Jankow (Thomas Hanlon)


Full disclosure:  I’m of Irish descent.  I’m not a big fan of gruesome stories,  but I am inclined to enjoy tales from the Emerald Isle.

I can’t leave Skull without raising a pint for an Irish toast.  To the cast and crew:

“I'll have what the man on the floor's having!” 

If you were involved in Skull in any way, it’s time for a pint.  Have a fecking good time.  You’ve earned it.

This show closes on April 30, 2017. 

Tickets HERE.  


Director:  Billie McBride

Scenic Designer: Jonathan Scott-McKean

Lighting Design:  Jonathan Scott-McKean

Costume Design:  Laurie Scalf Scoggins

Sound Design:  Billie McBride & Jonathan Scott-McKean

Stage Manager:  Bryanna Scott


Mick Dowd:  Logan Ernsthal

MaryJohnny Rafferty:  Carla Kaiser Kotrc

Mairtin HanlonJohn Hauser

Thomas HanlonJohn Jankow

Friday, April 21, 2017


Playwright: A.R. Gurney

Venue:  Funky Little Theater, 2109 Templeton Gap Road, 80907

Running time:  2 hours 10 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Thursday, April 20, 2017.

If there’s anything we all feel strongly about, it’s our pets.  Americans bond with their pets as strongly as they bond with the people in their families. We spend a fortune on them with special foods, high end pet hotels, and veterinary services comparable to the best hospitals for humans.  A. R. Gurney’s brilliant comedy Sylvia taps into this huge reserve of love we have for our canine companions.

L-R:  Sylvia, Catherine Cotton McGuire (Kate), John Zincone
(Greg), Amanda Gaden (Sylvia).
Gurney gives a voice to Sylvia, a stray dog (played here with a canine enthusiasm by Amanda Gaden).  Sylvia inserts herself into Greg (John Zincone) and Kate’s (Catherine Cotton McGuire) home and marriage.  Sylvia’s presence is disruptive to the domestic dynamic; Greg loves Sylvia unconditionally but for Kate the new dog is an unwelcome competitor for Greg’s attention.

Greg and Kate live in a New York City apartment, and bringing a dog into the mix is a significant challenge.  Although they negotiate a deal to let Sylvia stay for a few days before making a final decision, Greg and Kate’s positions quickly harden to the consistency of cement.  Sylvia stays, but the conflict intensifies as Greg sinks into a delusional emotional connection with Sylvia.

Sylvia is a laugh out loud comedy, with much of the laughter generated by Gaden’s convincing dog persona.  She does it all like a real dog, whether it’s jumping on the furniture, licking her people, or barking when someone comes to the door.  She’s pouty and evasive when Kate discovers someone has peed on the carpet.  She’s a raging carnivore when she sees a cat.  She’s an eager and unapologetic slut when she hooks up with Bowser.  Gaden has mastered dog motions and mannerisms so well that when she speaks, we hear only Sylvia.  We forget she’s actually a human.

John Zincone delivers a stand out performance as Greg; he’s moody, broody, and only borderline sane.  Greg’s devotion to Sylvia is well beyond the pale, but Zincone somehow dials the dementia back to a slow simmer before it boils over.  Catherine Cotton McGuire keeps her anger inside as Kate, rarely raising her voice despite Greg’s madness.  She’s determined, but not assertive.  At times, I wanted her to push back harder on Greg.  She didn’t. Cotton McGuire draws a stark contrast between herself, completely in control, and Sylvia’s doggy driven spontaneity.

Gurney throws a few curve balls in his script, not the least of which is three minor characters (one male, one female, and one of undetermined gender) played by a single actor.  That actor here is Sallie Walker, and her performance is brilliant in all three roles. Walker’s “Tom” makes her the most convincing cross dressing gal in Colorado.  Walker’s “Phyllis” gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening when she tosses her AA membership for a double scotch.  It’s through the androgynous “Leslie,” though, that we really understand Walker’s sexual fluidity.  She can be anyone we want, male, female, or other.  Few actors can make that claim; Walker can make it and prove it as well.

Chris Medina’s direction is crisp; scene changes are flawless.  He has turned the ladies loose here, giving Gaden and Walker free reign to run with their characters.  His focus on Cotton McGuire’s understated anger brings a version of Kate I hadn’t seen in four other productions.  Medina’s set is part outdoor park and part indoor upscale NYC apartment.   The apartment is adorned with two Georgia O’Keefe prints and one Mark Rothko.  The effect is both classy and striking.  Medina also produced Johnny Drago’s Trash recently, and the set was literally “Trash.”  The contrast between the two sets is a visual testament to his versatility.  

Gurney's script is hilarious, but the subliminal message is just as important:  it's easy to lose touch in our relationships.  "Sylvia" is a dog, but with very few tweaks to the script, she could be a woman.  Relationships are hard work, but Greg has given up on Kate. Sylvia's unconditional love requires much less work than fixing things with Kate. Gurney moderates this conflict with a surprisingly bittersweet ending.  Despite Greg's emotional distance and Kate's distrust of her competitor, Sylvia rebuilds a bridge that was only partially burned.

Sylvia is a tough ticket.  Funky Little Theater is a small venue in a strip mall, seating perhaps 50 people.  When I arrived shortly before show time, the parking lot was nearly full.  We got two of the last 4 seats.  The next couple to arrive filled the house, but they couldn’t sit together.  I point this out because Sylvia will likely sell out the entire house for the rest of the run.  Get your tickets early if you plan to see it.


Funky is partnering with All Breed Rescue & Training for this production. All Breed is a no kill shelter that rescues dogs. $1 from every ticket will be donated to All Breed.  Purchase a ticket and you don’t just get a great evening of theater…you also support the dedicated people at All Breed:

All Breed Rescue & Training is a nonprofit dog rescue and training organization based in Colorado Springs. Since 1994, we’ve been rescuing, rehabilitating, and finding forever families for dogs deemed unadoptable and facing euthanasia.

Sight lines at Funky can be difficult in the back rows, especially for a show like Sylvia where some of the actors are on hands and knees.  If you have a choice in seating (all tickets are general admission), get as close to the stage as possible.

Sylvia is suitable for teens and up, with the caveat that there are some F bombs in the script.

If you enjoyed Sylvia, I highly recommend reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.  It gets into a dog’s head, and it’s exactly what you would expect if your dog could talk.

L-R:  Caesar & Lucky
Full disclosure:  we have two (2) dogs in our household.  They are long haired dachshunds, and yes, they are part of the family, no matter the cost.

This show closes on April 30, 2017. 

Photo Credit:  Funky Little Theater Company, Chris Medina and John Zincone.

Tickets HERE.  


Director:  Chris Medina

Scenic Designer:  Chris Medina

Lighting Design:  Dylan McClintock

Costume Design:  Delaney Halauer

Stage Manager:  Dee Schnur/Megan McManus/Will Sobolik


Sylvia:  Amanda Gaden

Greg:  John Zincone

Kate:  Catherine Cotton McGuire

Assorted Genders and Roles:  Sallie Waker