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."
Milam and his crew had settled on a recipe in the run-up to opening night, but after one particular rehearsal he decided it still needed tinkering.
"I told everyone, 'I know this will sound crazy, but the blood isn't funny,' " he says. "It was too slow. It just sat there."
That night, in the laundry room of his apartment building, he came across an old Sotheby's catalogue from a sale of impressionist paintings, including some Picassos and Matisses. For some reason it all clicked.
"It was the textures," says Milam, "I think."
Blood has always been a devilish challenge for the theater. It's not just finding a combination that looks plausible onstage, though that's hard enough. If the shade isn't just right, it can read like Kool-Aid (too red) or Worcestershire sauce (too brown). Just as tricky, the stuff needs to wash off fast, so that props, costumes and actors look unbloodied for the next show -- which on days with matinees is a matter of hours. There is plenty of stage blood for sale in theatrical supply stores, but decent stuff starts at about $32 a quart, which is fine for, say, "Romeo and Juliet." When you need five gallons every night, that adds up.
"It's like bourbon," says Brimmer, the fight director. "There is blood out there that's touted to be amazing, washes out of everything, but it's $250 a gallon. That's not cost-effective for us."
So once Milam and Brimmer settled on their formula, they outsourced production. Now, once a week, a 29-year-old "special effects fabricator" named Anthony Giordano drives his pickup truck to a food wholesaler near his home in Lodi, N.J., and buys bulk quantities of the ingredients. Then he drags them to his garage and starts stirring.
"I call it 'the mass-casualty mix,' " he says on the phone. "The key is to keep all the stuff a little above room temperature. Otherwise the peanut butter will rise to the top."
Giordano delivers about 40 to 50 gallons a week to the Atlantic Theater. It arrives in white buckets, is scooped up with plastic milk jugs and placed in Tupperware containers with labels such as "brains" and "eyes."
The blood that winds up on the stage floor is the only blend that goes straight from the bucket and into the play. The rest -- for bullet wounds, eye-gougings, cat brains and so on -- gets a variety of add-ins for dramatic effect. (A bit of olive oil, for instance, makes the cat innards a tad goopier.) One recent night, Farrell and two others were getting ready, popping the top off a new five-gallon tub. Farrell gave it a taste.
"It winds up on the actors' faces, in their mouths," she says, dipping a finger. "I just need to make sure it hasn't started to ferment."
She pauses a moment, like a wine lover pondering a '59 Chateau Lafite.
"It's fine," she says.
Everyone grabs a prop or a gun, or a jug of mass-casualty mix. Grins all around. It's time to make a bloody mess.