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

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