Buckets of Blood Means It's Curtains

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

NEW YORK -- The theater creates its share of really weird jobs, and right now Freda Farrell has one of the weirdest. Officially she is an assistant stage manager, but that hardly does justice to her work. Six nights a week, and for matinees on Saturday and Sunday, she and a few underlings stage a sickening massacre, complete with severed limbs, dead animals and five gallons of blood.

None of it's real, of course, but it looks spectacularly disgusting. Especially the blood, which sloshes on the floor, gushes from the actors and splatters on the walls for each performance of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," a dark farce about Irish terrorists that has been turning tummies and winning raves during its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater.

The show, which heads to Broadway on Tuesday, is set in 1993 on an island off the coast of Ireland and concerns Padraic, a Catholic nationalist of such hair-trigger cruelty that he's been shunned by the Irish Republican Army. He returns home to the island when he hears that his cat, the only creature in the world he loves, is feeling poorly. A rival trio of radicals lies in wait. Carnage ensues. So much carnage that everyone who sees the show walks by warnings posted on the lobby walls: " 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore' contains extremely violent scenes that some may find disturbing."

Some? Look, if you don't find the razor-blade torture, point-blank shootings and cat-abuse comedy of "Inishmore" disturbing, then you might need handcuffs and a Percocet. And definitely don't tell Farrell, who, along with "fight director" David Brimmer and director Wilson Milam, spent hour upon hour perfecting the grisly, reddish-brown cocktail that marinates this production.

"There's actually nine different mixtures of blood used during the play," Farrell says one recent afternoon, giving a backstage tour. "You really want that variety."

You really do. The Whitman's Sampler of "Inishmore" blood is fine-tuned in what Farrell and her colleagues cheerfully call "the Morgue." It's a smallish, cluttered room that appears to have been the scene of a gangland slaying. There are murderous-looking splotches all over the walls, remnants from the nightly Jackson Pollock-style coating of assorted props.

The odd part is the smell. It turns out that the ideal mixture -- the one that drips the slowest and nauseates the audience fastest and cleans up the easiest -- is largely peanut butter and chocolate syrup. That plus Karo syrup, water and some red and blue food dyes.

So the Morgue looks like a slaughterhouse and smells like a candy store. Until someone invents Kit Kat bullets and caramel-coated body armor, this will be the only place on Earth that brings dessert and homicide to mind at the same time.

Which is somehow perfect for Martin McDonagh, the 36-year-old Londoner who wrote "Inishmore." His special genius is creating the onstage moment that is simultaneously appalling and funny, macabre and ridiculous, forcing you to wince, then laugh, and then wince about what you're laughing at. McDonagh won an Academy Award this year, for a short film he wrote and directed called "Six Shooter," but he's most famous for a creative burst in 1994, when he composed the better part of nine plays, nearly all of them set in the desolate, inhospitable west coast of Ireland, where his father grew up. At one point, four of McDonagh's plays were staged in a single season by theaters in London, a feat last achieved, according to popular lore, by Shakespeare.

Pain, pettiness and intra-family killing are among his favorite tropes. His characters are casually vicious and often dim. They're easily insulted and usually armed. Through all the savagery, McDonagh seems to hover above the action, a witty and unsentimental deity who will not save the day.

Even by the playwright's own standards, the gore factor of "Inishmore" is pretty high. Blood is shot through pressurized spouts hidden around the stage, some set off by stagehands, others by the actors themselves. Severed legs and arms pile up. Cat corpses are tossed around. It's perversely amusing and alarmingly real. Audience members regularly scream in shock, and a few have left in the middle of the show.

"You never see plays in which the characters have to reload their guns," says Milam, who directed this production of the play and three other productions already mounted in England. "There are a lot of great reloading moments in film, but I don't think there's ever been one on a stage."

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