Irish Island on Broadway: “Cripple of Inishmaan” Review

IMG_0159The weeks following the Tony Awards produce a rush of Broadway hype, crowding the streets around Time Square. Theater-lovers and New York tourists purchase last-minute tickets for sold out shows trying desperately to see for themselves the critically acclaimed productions they got a glimpse of at the Tony’s. This season, some mainstream celebrities occupy roles in Broadway’s cast, such as Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Idina Menzel (If/Then), and Daniel Radcliffe (Cripple). Not only are these actors well known, but they are also theater-veterans.  “The Cripple of Inishmaan” runs from April through July this year. Radcliffe takes his acting talents to a Cort Theatreplay, illuminating the story written by the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh.

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” tells a tale of a young orphaned cripple boy, CrippleBilly, living on the small Irish island of Inishmaan in 1934, who wishes to escape to Hollywood to become a film star when a film crew comes to a neighboring island. Secrets of CrippleBilly’s life and family are exposed throughout the play, while exploring life at this time and place through the Irish characters. The film crew that shakes up the Inishmaan residents is based on the real event, when the documentary-filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, traveled to Inishmore to film “The Man of Aran” in the early 1930s.

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” features a mostly Irish cast and a small one with only eight characters (Billy, Aunt Eileen, Aunt Kate, Johnnypeteen, BabbyBobby, Helen McCormack, Bartly McCormack, Doctor, Mammy). These eight characters  make up the town on Inishmaan, showcased on one central set piece that rotates to reveal three separate backgrounds, two of which changed constantly to accommodate different scenes. The small island in Ireland is the main setting and, like a Greek play, the action that happens off of Inishmaan takes place off-stage. The audience only sees what’s happening with residents of Inishmaan. The one exception is a misleading scene with Billy in a worn-down Hollywood hotel room where Radcliffe delivers an emotional deathbed soliloquy. The silent audience watched Billy cough and uncontrollable shake until he lay still. Of course the main character cannot die, so when Billy returns, we learn that he was only practicing acting.

Most of the actors’ performances consisted of long speeches as the play is really 2.5 hours of dialogue. The audience listened to long-winded explanations and complaints connected to Irish stereotypes. With a small cast, “Cripple” involves long scenes with the same characters. The actors’ challenge is to not only remember their lines but to also deliver them in the quick-witted raged Irish manner, offering insight into individual characters and Inishmaan life during this time.

Dan Radcliffe portrays a role that is practically opposite of previous roles he’s more well- known for. Most notable, the Harry Potter character was a hero, a chosen one, with the pressure of being a leader. In his Broadway performance of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Radcliffe played J. Pierpont Finch, an up-and-coming businessman, scheming, getting attention from bosses and gaining respect for making it to the top. However, Radcliffe encounters a totally different dynamic playing a cripple who is casted-out and joked about. He explores the frustration and emotion surrounding a cripple living with non-relative aunts in a gossip-centered town. The play fleshes out prejudice against the disabled, as one character says,“No one would kiss you, you’re a sad little cripple boy!” Radcliffe solemnly asks the characters, “Can you not call me CrippleBilly?…Just Billy.” Billy even calls out a character who believes his boat will sink if a cripple rides inside.

Radcliffe’s soliloquy early in the second act convinces the audience that Billy dies alone and miserable. In actuality, that scene was Billy simply ‘rehearsing’ and only served to show off Radcliffe’s acting talents. However, his most memorable performance comes later in the show when he returns home to confront his friends.

After a confession about fooling people into thinking he was dying, he fervently expresses his need to try and escape his monotonous, miserable life. Radcliffe then proclaims, “Other people are crippled too, but it just doesn’t show on the outside.”

In addition, Radcliffe does a fantastic job portraying a crippled boy. His blocking consists of him awkwardly limping across the stage to sit unnaturally in a wooden chair. This takes body acting to a whole new level. Radcliff’s left leg is stiffened (probably with a theater magic cast or stick inside his pant leg), so that when he sits, it juts out, and when he walks, it’s as if his left leg is shorter than the right and is unable to bend. Radcliffe also unnaturally tucks his left arm into his chest the entire play, insinuating that his arm is as crippled as his leg. With the left side of his body mangled, Radcliffe truly appears lopsided.

Other than Radcliffe, specific actors absolutely shine in their roles, despite their ratted, dirty, earth-colored costumes. Sarah Green as Helen McCormack delivers flawless rants and teases, some at CrippleBilly’s expense. A loud-mouthed troublemaker, Helen adamantly secures herself with other characters as Sarah Green does on the stage. Whenever she opened her mouth, the audience focused on her scowled face and concentrated on deciphering her Irish vernacular. Another busybody character, Johnnypeteen, was literally the mouthpiece of the play. As the town news-bringer, he had to eagerly deliver island happenings to all the characters, and did so always looking superficially pleased with himself. Pat Shortt did an impressive job fleshing out Johnnypeteen’s character while simultaneously moving the plot forward with his news. Even though throughout the play he seems to be a nosy, gossiping tattle-tale, Shortt made the final revelation of his kind demeanor seem plausible.

During many points throughout the play, the setting is exploited for comedy. There’s a natural juxtaposition between the modern Western society and the poor, small island. The youth of Inishmaan are constantly admiring and pining for American novelties such as telescopes, sweets and Hollywood. The elders, however, warn Billy not to sass them with big words like “evidently.” There’s also multiple comedic references to Irish relations to the rest of Europe. A recurring phrase is that, “Ireland must be good place if cripples want to come here,” with the word ‘cripple’ being replaced by ’the French’, ‘filmmakers’, ‘sharks’, and ‘colored folks.’ Helen plays the game, “England vs. Ireland,” where she cracks eggs on her brother’s head and says, “I was giving you a lesson in Irish history.” The funniest historic joke comes in the first act when Johnnypeteen is reading news and says, “There’s a fella who rose to power in Germany and he’s got a funny mustache.” The remaining comedy comes from playing on Irish stereotypes, such as the old woman drinking herself to death and the violent and headstrong young woman with a dirty mouth.

At the heart of the show, the main theme is home. After Billy’s Hollywood adventure, he returns to Inishmaan to the people who care about him. Although the people are gossips, troublemakers, drunks and slightly mad, it’s the bonds of the small town that keep things running. A greater appreciation for those who support CrippleBilly comes at the very end when the mystery about his parents is revealed and Helen kisses him. With Billy’s health still a looming question, the play rests on a somewhat bittersweet ending. However, the feeling still rings true with Billy’s homecoming line, “Home is where you’re surrounded by people you love and the people who love you.”

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