Fierce family tragicomedy – The Beauty Queen of Leenane @ Red Sandcastle Theatre

BeautyQueenTook a trip to east end Toronto ‘hood Leslieville last night to see the opening of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Directed by Wes Berger, this Beauty Queen features an outstanding foursome of a cast: Rosemary Doyle, Lynne Griffin (who Lost Girl fans will recognize from season one ep. “Food For Thought” as Halima, the nice Aswang lady who becomes Lauren’s patient after cooking up a bad batch of foot soup), Paul Kelly and Sean Sullivan. Doyle is also the owner/A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre – if you missed my recent blog interview with her, you can read it here.

The first play of McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy (which continues with A Skull in Connemara and finishes with The Lonesome West; the latter had a fine production mounted by  the Toronto Irish Players a couple of years ago), The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a story of fierce, often brutally funny, family dysfunction – in this case, it’s a mother (Griffin as Mag Folan) and daughter (Doyle as Maureen Folan) at each others’ throats.

Mag and Maureen are begrudgingly settled into their lives of not-so-quiet desperation in their small rural family home – and their dynamic of mutual sniping and vengeful, petty tortures has a cellmate quality to it. Added to the mix are the Dooley brothers Ray (played by Kelly) and Pato (Sullivan), long-time neighbours and, in Ray’s case at least, family frenemies. And Pato’s recent return from work in England to visit for a family do offers an oasis of possibility for Maureen. Since this is a Martin McDonagh play, no one is as they seem, and plans have a way of twisting and turning. And the darkly funny family dysfunction at the Folan house may be far more complex and feral than it appears.

Griffin and Doyle have excellent chemistry as the feuding mother and daughter. Griffin deftly works the layers of Mag’s girlish charm and passive aggressive, high-maintenance Irish mother – and it’s a pleasure to watch her sly, devilish delight as she plots interference. Doyle does a stellar job, giving us a Maureen who, beneath the bored, put-upon 40-year-old spinster, has a deep well of sexuality, ambition and potentially darker passions bubbling near the surface. Kelly is a treat as Ray, the rough and tough-talking simple younger brother who adores Australian soaps, and provides some much needed comic relief. Sullivan is lovely as Pato, a sweet and gentlemanly bachelor of a certain age – full of longing and youthful enthusiasm, like Maureen – but frustrated and underachieving in a job that’s beneath his ambition.

I’ve really come to enjoy McDonagh’s writing. It’s raw, fierce and discomfiting – and pulls no punches (I also had the pleasure of seeing an excellent production of McDonagh’s The Pillowman, mounted by Rarely Pure Theatre last year). McDonagh’s work is not for the faint of heart. Don’t come out expecting the quaint, cozy Irish of Barry Fitzgerald and “Tura Lura Lural” – there’s nothing wrong with that, but you won’t be getting any of it here.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues its run at Red Sandcastle Theatre until February 1,with performances on Jan 24, 25, 28, 29, 30 and Feb 1 at 8 p.m., and a 2 p.m. matinee on Jan 27. Given the popularity of this play, the short run and the intimacy of the space, I highly recommend booking a reservation in advance. You can do so by calling the box office (416-845-9411) or via Rosemary Doyle’s Twitter page.

Production photos by Paul Kelly and Sean Sullivan:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Do you know The Pillowman?

When I enter the intimate space of the Propeller Gallery, it is filled with a couple of rows of chairs facing a minimalist playing space (set designed by Tracy Lam, who also designed costumes and props). A table, a file cabinet, a couple of chairs. Three metal frame-encased light bulbs hang from the ceiling. Stage right, there is a projection screen, currently blank.  The works of six local artists,* created specifically for the production, hang on the white upstage wall. The images are beautiful, freakish, violent and nightmarish – each bordered and connected to some of the others with black tape. Like a homicide detective’s whiteboard. Or a bizarre family tree. Relationships. Causality. Connections.

This is opening night of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Ryan Quinn. As with McDonagh’s other works (The Lonesome West and the film In Bruges), this play is not for the faint-hearted. And in this space, the action is even more up close and personal, drawing the audience in even as it repels.

Katurian (Chris George) is a writer of strange, wondrous and often grotesque stories –  many involving young children in macabre fairy tales that would make the Grimm boys blanch. He is also in police custody in a totalitarian dictatorship – blindfolded when we first see him – with no idea why he’s there. Detectives Tupolski (Davydd Cook) and Ariel (Spencer Robson, also one of the company’s ADs and producer for this show) interrogate Katurian, who soon learns that his intellectually challenged older brother Michal (David DiFrancesco) is also in custody. Two children have been found murdered and a third (Maria – Maya Kawale) is missing, presumed dead. If the brothers are found guilty, the police have the power to go straight to execution. No trial. No jail time.

Twists and turns abound in this  deeply disturbing, moving and brutally funny play. Quinn and his cast have done a marvelous job of mining these characters, presenting the multiple facets of each, ever aware of how high the stakes. No one is as he seems at first – and any notion of good cop/bad cop, hero/villain, innocent/guilty are turned upside down as the action progresses. As the protagonist Katurian, George is especially remarkable, displaying an extraordinary range of vulnerability, strength and emotion in a single performance. Each character holds strong convictions – and when they clash, it is both terrible and thought-provoking to behold. Intimidation, torture, wordplay and storytelling share the stage in this gripping and moving drama. The stage right screen I mentioned earlier is put to good use, with projected illustrations (by Lauren Dobbie) of Katurian’s stories appearing as he narrates them — like the stories, both lyrical and terrible. And Katurian’s fight to save his art rivals that of his fight to save himself or his brother.

*Shouts, too, to the contributing artists, whose work is available for sale (speak with the box office folks): Mike Ellis, Tiffany Huta, Jennifer Ilett, Emily Kouri, Suharu Ogawa and Tyler Tilley.

The Pillowman runs just till March 3 at the Propeller Gallery – and seating is limited – so I’d strongly suggest booking in advance at TicketBreak. Go see this.