British writer Martin McDonagh made a stunning worldwide splash in 2018 when he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his unlikely hit “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” That tale of a mother’s quest to find her teen daughter’s killer and the many devastating events along the way managed to find some dark laughs along with stunning moments of violence and superbly written dialogue, a combination that made millions sit up and take notice.
But before McDonagh moved into the film world (he’s also made the indie gems “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”), he was an acclaimed playwright in his native land. Now that “Billboards” has earned him worldwide repute, theaters around the globe are rediscovering his stage works— a trend that Glendale’s Antaeus Theatre is building off with its current production of McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” running through March 11.
Inspired by the real-life filming of the documentary “Man of Aran” — director Robert J. Flaherty’s seminal 1934 documentary about the primitive way of life on the barren, limestone islands in Galway Bay — McDonagh’s dark comedy is set on the small Aran Island community of Inishmaan. There, the inhabitants are excited to learn of a Hollywood film crew’s arrival in neighboring Inishmore to shoot the film. “Cripple” Billy Claven, eager to escape the gossip, poverty and boredom of Inishmaan, vies for a part in the film, and to everyone’s surprise, the orphan and outcast gets his chance.
“He had a reputation for quite a long time as a playwright before he did film, and they all had a sense of wickedness and humor or violence and humor in them,” says Stephen Robman, who directs this production. “This has far less violence than others where a hand gets severed or someone gets burned onstage. This is wicked more than violent and the humor is the preponderant tone in the play. Some of the others are so downright cruel they’re rough to sit through.
“Since we live in Los Angeles, the engine of the plot is even more fun than it might be in Kansas City,” Robman adds. “McDonagh uses the presence of the crew being there while they’re unbeknownst to the characters as a plot device that energizes the younger people in the play as an escape from this island of rock and mud. The crippled boy in town wants to be part of it and the town laughs at him, because they feel what use is there for a crippled boy? But he has the last laugh.”
The play continues Antaeus’ tradition of partner-casting all their productions, with two actors alternating performance dates in each of the leading roles. The reason for the practice is that Antaeus was formed and is still driven by many regularly working TV and film actors in its repertory cast, and having every role ready to be performed by two different people each night helps everyone involved to be able to take a night off from a play to finish a night shoot.
“Theaters always have understudies but because these actors are so in demand for high-paying film and TV jobs, this was set up to guarantee their hard work learning the play is rewarded instead of understudies risking never getting on,” says Robman, who has directed one other play for the 21-year-old actors’ ensemble. “That way the commitment to do the work is paid off by knowing you’ll perform. You could say you’re doing double the work as director. It’s not quite double but you also have to deal with the extra wrangling of personalities. I tell each of the two actors in any role ‘you can do whatever you want different from your partner, as long as it’s not so different I have to relight the scene.’”
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” runs through Mar. 11 at Antaeus Theatre Company, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale. Tickets are $35. Call (818) 506-1983 or visitantaeus.org.