Review: ‘By the Bog of Cats’ at The Irish Heritage Theatre

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“To the Bog of Cats I one day will return
In mortal form or in ghostly form
And I will find you there and there with your sojourn
Forever by the Bog of Cats, my darling one.”

If there ever was a title to scare away American audiences, By the Bog of Cats is certainly it. But to an audience at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, it promises wonder, ghosts, and a visit into centuries of tradition. The author, Marina Carr, is a frequently-produced playwright in Ireland but nearly unknown in America. Could it be her stylistic challenges are too daunting for American directors and audiences?

Kirsten Quinn and Ethan Lipkin. Photo by Carlos Forbes.
Kirsten Quinn and Ethan Lipkin. Photo by Carlos Forbes.

Here’s the author’s description of the set:

Dawn. On the Bog of Cats. A bleak white landscape of ice and snow. Music, a lone violin. Hester Swayne trails the corpse of a black swan after her, leaving a trail of blood in the snow. The Ghost Fancier stands there watching her.

Wow. This is a play that could proceed in a number of directions. Is it about the effects of a harsh surreal landscape on humanity? Is it a poetic exploration of hate and loss? Is it a ghost story where the nether world and the real world collide? This is one of those Dark of the Moon-style plays that can be imaginatively produced on a low budget.

The plot is loosely based on Medea by Euripides. Hester (Kirsten Quinn) is a Traveler – that is, one who lives in a caravan, a sort of gypsy wagon. She abides in the Bog of Cats and has a 14-year relationship with Carthage (Arlen Hancock). They have a seven-year-old daughter, Josie (Keri Doheny). Carthage has decided to marry the young and beautiful Caroline (Jenna Kuerzi), the daughter of a rich landowner (Ethan Lipkin), for personal and financial reasons. Everyone hopes that the now-dispensable Hester will merely leave the bog, but she has no intention of doing so. Deep-seated revenge will follow.

Then add this: the dialogue is composed in an abstruse, near-poetic language featuring many long speeches rich with sometimes-obscure imagery. Nearly everyone has a huge mouthful.

The production by the Irish Heritage Theatre, at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 and directed by Peggy Mecham, takes no particular approach to the material, resulting in a confusing experience for the audience.

Set Designer Samuel Lee Lewis has created a backdrop of white and gray strips of cloth that make no statement about the Bog of Cats. The set is indifferently lighted by Rachael Krupnick, and there is no attempt to create atmosphere in the admittedly tiny Studio 5 space. The final scenes are supposed to be set in front of Hester’s caravan, but this single set is merely dominated by folding chairs painted white. The audience must imagine quite a lot as a red muffler and a blanket here play Hester’s symbolic black swan. Is there an idea behind this choice?

The costumes (by Peggy Mecham) seem to be California chic. A character called The Catwoman (Tina Brock) is, according to the playwright, dressed in the remains of dead cats. But this Tiresias figure has a nice fur piece, jewelry and a fetching wig. Poor Hester, child of the bog, has elegant boots, coat, dress and earrings. She is a double for Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. The script and dialogue continually state how cold and unforgiving the bog is, but this has little effect on the designs or the performances.

This, naturally, places a huge storytelling burden on the actors. Yet long speeches pass at such a rapid tempo that is it impossible to sense the imagery, individuality, or even the plot points, resulting in further bewilderment. Kirsten Quinn makes a valiant attempt at a heroic, tragic performance but only manages a generalized rendition of the humiliation, fear and rage the role requires. (Shaw’s often-repeated dictum “If the play seems long, slow it down” might abet upcoming performances.) Mary Pat Walsh has a good beginning on the humorous mother-in-law from hell, but needs more variety and complexity of characterization.

Irish acting is known for the deeply committed performances and the almost magical handling of poetic language. Praise is due to Susan Giddings as a lonely neighbor and Arlen Hancock as the handsome leading man. When they are on stage, every word is understood and the characters’ pain and sorrow are palpable and believable.

Arlen Hancock and Kirsten Quinn. Photo by Carlos Forbes.
Arlen Hancock and Kirsten Quinn. Photo by Carlos Forbes.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.

By the Bog of Cats plays through Saturday, November 18, 2016, at the Irish Heritage Theatre, performing at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 – 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 735-0630, or purchase them online.

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Neal Newman
Over the past 40 years, Neal Newman has directed extensively in classical, Shakespeare, modern theater, musicals, and opera. He trained as an actor at California State University, and trained in Shakespeare at ACT of San Francisco. He trained as a director at Carnegie Mellon, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He directed many Off-Broadway productions in New York, ran a summer stock company, and directed five seasons of Shakespeare in the Park in Philadelphia, and many opera and Gilbert & Sullivan productions. He was a New York Critic for Show Business Magazine for 7 years, and has written for many local papers and websites. He is co author of 'GOLDILOCKS AND THE DOWN HOME BEARS' presented at Steel River Playhouse, and will soon present a reading of the new musical 'LITTLE PRINCESS.'