Certain plays bring certain qualities to the stage in such abundance that they serve to diminish – up to a point – the flaws of some productions. You may see a production of Hamlet with a weak lead, but the evening is saved by a superior Polonius, excellently executed Ghost scenes, and, of course, there is always the language. Some comedies have an amazing tenacity for surviving subpar stagings.
I have never found “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” by Christopher Durang to be a very well written play; however, it does happen to be the funniest inadequate play ever penned in English. I have sat in more audiences for Durang’s seminal work that I can count, and those productions ran the gauntlet from “laugh till my spleen exploded” to “make whole cast drink diet blue Kool-Aid”. Yet even in the most abysmal staging it got laughs, because it’s just that funny.
On the other hand there are plays with merits less pronounced, plays that need the support or infusion of talented collaborators to lift them up. Marina Carr’s “By the Bog of Cats”, I think, is such a work. It is not that the work is a bad play, it’s just more was needed for it to be a really good one.
Hence the reliance on others.
Carr’s piece has a solid foundation: the classical tale of Medea set in the wild marshes of the ragged Irish west coast. The domain of the “lucht siúil” the “Travelers” or “Tinkers”. Not Gypsies of the Romani, but a distinct and more ancient people.
The use of such a framing device is not in itself revolutionary. I’ve seen the Rwandan Medea, the South Central Hip-Hop Medea, the transgender Medea, the Gay father Medea and the over blown “Mommie Dearest” Medea in drag. But bring into this equation a dead swain with symbolic overtones, a dapper Grim Reaper, a mad woman possessed of a feline daemon, the wandering ghost of a young murder victim, and what do you have?
Unfortunately a sum that manages to be less than its parts, parts that do not seem welded to the scaffolding of Greek myth, but draped over it. Carr has populated her stage with interesting characters and some lovely language (“Death’s a big country”). She presented a fine work, but perhaps not a finished work. Here is where the cast and director are needed to ride to the rescue like the cavalry in the old Gower Gulch westerns and save the day.
They almost get there.
The leads are strong and capable. Kacey Camp as Hester, the remolded Medea, embraces the dark descent of the discarded woman with a presence worthy of Euripides’ stage. Joseph Patrick O’Malley as the fickle and ambitious Carthage skillfully supplies the fuel and fans the flames cumulating in his former lover’s auto-da-fé. Camp and O’Malley top a cast resplendent with talent.
Erin Barnes as the object of Carthage’s desires and ambitions imbues the role with both a compassion and humanity seldom found in other rendering of the character of Glauce. Carr’s strength is apparent in the great moments her roles provide, moments that talented actors can wear like illuminated mink as Shelly Kurtz, Barry Lynch and Rebecca Wackler certainly do. As Monica, Hester’s lone friend, Erin Noble plays Horatio to Carr’s Hamlet. To put an actor of insubstantial talent in such a role could have dire consequence. No fear of that here. Erin Noble is an Actress, and that capital “A” is intentional. David Pavao is handicapped by a role that fulfills the requirements of a deus ex machina and little else, and young Miss Talyan Wright’s performance displays a maturity that speaks of a promising career ahead of her.
Sean Branney’s craftsman like direction is solid, but never inspired. With some plays this might pass unnoticed but this work is not one. The director’s “Prime Directive” is to work in service of the play. That appears in “By the Bog of the Cats” to mean either challenging or guiding one’s cast to rise above the limits of the work.
For plays of this sort, plays that are fine yet feel unfinished, “It is what it is” is the customary requiem given. But by the merits that the piece does possess, and on the strength of the performances top to bottom, “it is what it is”, is still pretty darn good.