Review: “Skull” Kicks Off Fall With a Head-Banger

by Mike Vargo for Entertainment Central Pittsburgh

Now that autumn is in the air, the season begins in earnest, and a cry goes up all across town: Are you ready for some THEATER?

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre has responded with Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, a real head-banger of a dark comedy that comes close, at times, to resembling a contact sport—both physically, and in terms of manic intensity.

Plot-wise, A Skull in Connemara revolves around a murder mystery. The play has serious elements, but they are wrapped in layers of comic pandemonium. Whereas Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, soliloquizes over poor Yorick’s skull, here we have two men doing unspeakable violence to human remains while a pop song blares from a record player in the background. It’s the Irish singer Dana Scallon’s sickeningly sweet Eurovision ballad, “All Kinds of Everything (Remind Me of You).”

And, whereas Hamlet ponders philosophically whether to be or not to be, the characters in Skull probe the riddles of fate in a rather different manner. There is a scene in which the same two men—middle-aged Mick (James Keegan) and young Mairtin (Alec Silberblatt), both played superbly—debate the following at length: whether ‘tis more grievous to die by drowning in vomit or in urine, as one local ne’er-do-well apparently managed. “Drowned in wee, he did!” wails Mairtin. “What a way to go!” To which the older, more experienced Mick replies, “Was it his own wee? A fact like that is very important, now…”

Digging Up the Past

Skull’s action takes place in a small Irish town in the 1970s. Our chief protagonist, Mick, is a burly hard-drinking loner who holds, literally, an odd job. Every so often he is hired to dig up skeletons from the graveyard to make room for new arrivals, a practice not so unusual in European countries. This time, however, Mick must clear the part of the yard where his wife was buried seven years ago.

The official story says she died in an auto accident with Mick at the wheel, driving drunk, although many neighbors think otherwise: Maybe he did her in before the “accident.” Thus they wonder: Will the excavation reveal new evidence? Such as, maybe, a skull that looks battered by a hand? That is where the dramatic tension lies, and where the hijinks begin.

Skull has only two other characters in addition to Mick and Mairtin, each contributing largely to the confusion. One is an overly striving police officer, Thomas (Jason McCune), who hovers around the graveyard, trying to act nonchalant while eager to break his first big case. McCune plays the part nicely, coming across as a sort of Irish Clouseau. There’s also the local busybody, Maryjohnny (Sharon Brady), who enjoys dropping by Mick’s cottage to cadge a few nips of his whiskey. Looking at her role from a classic perspective, you might say she serves as the mythical hag or seer, framing the play’s events and commenting upon them sagely—except this is a hag who cheats at church bingo.

Don’t let the haggard look fool you. Maryjohnny (Sharon Brady) is sharp as a tack and she’s getting free drinks from Mick.

She even tries to sell some of the stuff she’s won, like tickets to an amusement ride, which Mick declines. “I was never a man for the bumpy slides,” he declares. The line is ironic, since there are bumps and slides aplenty in the play. And the most spectacular bumping and sliding is done by young Mairtin.

More Fun Than WHAT?

Mairtin (the Irish form of “Martin”) is a teenager assigned to help Mick with digging up the graves. Mairtin is also a young man whose personality, in today’s American society, might be described in such clinical jargon as hyperactive, grandiose but competence-challenged, gregarious but lacking empathy, unaware of rules or boundaries, etc.

In the blue-collar neighborhood where this reviewer grew up, our mothers would simply warn us  that such a kid was the kind of friend who’d get you into trouble. Highly amusing and a nice guy at heart, at least potentially, yet always clowning and acting out in situations where he shouldn’t. And watching Alec Silberblatt as Mairtin took me right back to those days. The part is written brilliantly; the actor nails it.

In fact, once they are thrown together, this production’s Mick and Mairtin make up the best unlikely-buddy act I have seen in many a day. James Keegan’s Mick is mysteriously menacing, as he ought to be—the big, brooding tough guy who will fire off sarcastic remarks, when warranted, but often signals inner turmoil with just a glare or a darkening of the visage. Silberblatt’s Mairtin is the ultra-kinetic rubber man, leaving no emotion unfelt and expressing them all with every inch of body and every syllable uttered.

Mick’s school of hard knocks is in session and Mairtin, here with his thinking face on, needs to ace the exam.

As the two get into their work, fueled eventually by lots of whiskey, it’s like hell with the lid off. “This is more fun than hamster cooking!” Mairtin crows. He’s referring to an experiment he had performed on a live hamster—one of the more troubling aspects of Mairtin’s personal history—but the line could sum up the whole play.

If that brand of dark humor upsets you, skip it. On the other hand, if you believe that beauty (and a little truth) can be delivered in grotesque packages, and if you’re willing to laugh at the spectacle, as so many good folks in the opening-night audience did, then maybe A Skull in Connemara is just your ticket.

Closing Credits

Playwright Martin McDonagh drew the title of A Skull in Connemara from the famous Lucky’s monologue in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. If you look it up, you’ll be properly mystified. Yet another Martin, who goes by the last name of Giles, directed Skull for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. The play runs through Sept. 28 at the Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, next to the Cathedral of Learning on Forbes Avenue, Oakland. For performance dates, times, and tickets, click PICT or call 412-561-6000.

Photos courtesy of PICT and  Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Mike Vargo, an experienced, longtime writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, has himself performed on stage but “not very well,” he says. So he sticks to writing about it. 

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