And closer to home, the Palo Alto Players are letting the blood pour forth in McDonagh's bloodiest, most limb-strewn play, "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." The gross-out factor is so high that the Players have posted signs just outside the doors of the Lucie Stern Theatre reading: "Rated R; Don't worry, it's all feckin' fake."
Those signs are no joke. This is as violent as plays get, but the explosions of blood, the piles of body parts and the torrents of blood gushing down the stage are — believe it or not — part of a very entertaining black comedy with a surprisingly trenchant anti-violence message.
There's absolutely no point in choosing to do this play, part of British-born McDonagh's series set in a fairy-tale/nightmare version of Ireland, if you aren't going to absolutely go for it. Happily, director Michael Champlin and his game cast don't pull any punches. They seem to understand that without going full throttle on the comedy and the gore, the play's assertion that violence is the dumbest way to deal with anything might not register.
Special mention must be made of properties designer Pat Tyler and special effects artist Tunuviel Luv Gulamani for their outstanding work making the island of Inishmore the most bloody awful place in Ireland. Terrible things are done to cats (prop cats, let it be said), and that's what sets the revenge plot in motion. Even worse things are done to people, but one of the play's most powerful observations is that we often react more strongly to violence and animals than to violence and people.
A satiric look at the "troubles" of Ireland, "Inishmore" takes as its main character a terrorist deemed "too mad" for the IRA. He's part of a splinter group, and even his terrorist cohorts are afraid of him because he takes torture to new heights. When we meet Padraic (Jerrod Pirtle), he's in the midst of torturing a drug dealer who sells to little kids. The victim (Warren Wernick) is hanging upside down, a trickle of blood running down the length of his body and his bare chest as a result of the toenails that Padraic has ripped out. He's about to cut off a nipple when he gets a call from his dad announcing that Padraic's beloved cat, Wee Thomas, has taken a turn.
We know that poor Wee Thomas is more than ill. The black cat has used up his nine lives, and he did not leave this planet singing "Memory." On a Sunday matinee, this combination of animal and human mayhem was too much for the two ladies sitting in front of me and a couple sitting behind me. Within 15 minutes of the play starting, they took their leave.
This is understandable but unfortunate. If you stick with this "Lieutenant," there's a big payoff, and you don't even have to wait too long because the two-act play is not even two hours long.
In Act 2, the body count really begins to rise as a trio of terrorists — Troy Johnson, Henry Nolin and Martin Gutfeldt — attempts to deal with their crazy, grief-stricken cohort. They don't have much luck, but Mairead (Melinda Marks), a fetching neighbor girl with a talent for shooting out cows' eyes, succeeds quite nicely in taking Padriac's attention away from the Wee Thomas problem.
The real clowns of the piece are Padraic's dad, Donny (Dan Roach), and long-haired neighbor boy Davey (Ryan Mardesich). These are fools of the highest order, and part of their hilarity comes from an inability to be fazed by anything, even if it requires burning off fingerprints. From fingers.
Pirtle as Padraic is about as sympathetic as a terrorist can get. Padraic's lust (and talent) for violence is undoubtedly rooted in his rough Inishmore upbringing, but as his soft spot for cats demonstrates, he's a sensitive soul. After one particular torture session, he makes sure his victim has bus fare to get to the hospital for a tetanus shot, stat. He acknowledges that he has not been washing the razor blade he uses in his bloodletting.
Oh, the bloodletting. The special effects involving gunshots to the head, with bright red splatters and bits of ... stuff ... hitting the wall are just about perfect. The audience groans and laughs almost simultaneously, and that's the McDonagh sweet spot. When you see "blood" running down and dripping off the edge of the stage, you have to laugh. The absurdity of violence cannot be denied and neither can the risky, rewarding appeal of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore."
What: "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" by Martin McDonagh, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through July 1, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $20-$29 general, with a $4 discount for seniors; and $28 for students 25 and younger.
Info: Go to http://www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.